How we are harnessing synthetic biology for material development and what it means for our future.
Authored by: Mr Javan McGuckin
Andrew N. Liveris Academy for Innovation and Leadership at The University of Queensland, Brisbane.
As our society continues to grow and advance, the materials we surround ourselves with should also be given careful consideration. Many companies have turned to synthetic biology to help tackle this issue.
If we turn to the fashion industry you will find that it is the second largest polluter in the world only after the oil industry (1). This has created a consumer demand for more sustainable materials and practices. Some companies have responded with synthetic biology innovations spanning the likes of spider silk, microbial cellulose and materials derived from mushrooms.
The leather industry is also being shaken up by developments in synthetic biology, allowing businesses to produce high-quality cruelty free leather. One company challenging the conventional leather industry is MycoWorks, with their Reishi fine mycelium material. Reishi is made by culturing mushrooms and using the fine mycelium to craft sheets of leather-like material. In January of 2020 Reishi launched at New York fashion week where it was praised for its luxurious feeling and beautiful natural patina (2). Modern Meadow, another company focused on synthetic biology materials, has also developed a process for making leather from yeast-expressed collagen (the primary component of skin) (3). This biofabric is not only cruelty free but also has significantly lower environmental impacts. These new developments are not just limited to common leathers; however, with companies such as Provenance Biofabrics working to successfully engineer hides of other animals such as crocodiles and ostrich. This promises to bring these highly exclusive materials to a wider group of consumers without any cruelty to animals.
Spider silk is an incredibly strong material which has strength 5 times that of steel, yet is elastic and highly waterproof. These properties lend this silk to be well suited to several applications in both apparel and in medicine. Harvesting spider silk however, is an expensive process that is difficult to perform in any high scale operations. To combat this Bolt Threads have developed “Microsilk” a sustainably produced textile which is spun from the same proteins as a spider’s web (4). This allows for more economically viable production of spider silk, which will in future be able to more readily enter the global market.
The reach of synthetic biology materials is not limited to just the fashion industry. Companies such as bioMASON have developed technology to craft building materials such as bricks. These bricks are made without CO2 emissions, using natural and renewable resources and can even utilise waste material from major industrial streams. Concrete and clay manufacturing are one of the most energy intensive material processes, accounting for 8% of global CO2 Emissions (5), involving high CO2 emissions and vast amounts of energy for extraction of materials, their transport and fuel for kiln heating. bioMASON’s approach instead involves a process like hydroponics in which microorganisms are fed and then hardened to form the “bio-cement”. This process has major capacity to reduce the impacts of the construction industry in the coming years and is an exciting area moving forward.
Together each of these developments facilitates more interest in the area of synthetic biology material development and paves the way for new innovations in this space. By continuing to research new materials and their sustainable development we will be able to drastically reduce our impact on our environment in the future.