Innovation That Matters

| Photo source Imperial College London

A revolutionary self-dyeing leather made by microbes

Fashion & Beauty

Genetically engineered bacteria produce a plastic-free and vegan leather

Spotted: The leather industry is a major polluter, with the tanning of just 1 kilogramme of animal leather using up to 2.5 kilogrammes of chemicals and 250 litres of water – all while generating up to 6.1 kilogrammes of waste. 

Now, researchers at Imperial College London have genetically engineered bacterial cellulose to create an animal-free, plastic-free leather that dyes itself. According to the researchers, this is the first time that a team has been able to use bacterial engineering to create a material and pigment at the same time. 

Bacterial cellulose is already commonly used in food, cosmetics, and textiles. But, in this case, the researchers modified the genes of a cellulose-producing species of bacteria so that it would produce a dark black pigment – eumelanin – simultaneously. 

After two weeks of growing a sheet of bacterial cellulose to fit a shoe-shaped template, the cellulose was then shaken gently at 30 degrees Celsius over two days. This activated the production of eumelanin, causing the shoe to dye itself black. As well as the shoe, the team also successfully created a wallet prototype, demonstrating the material’s ability to be manipulated and sewn into different items. The process could also be adapted to grow different colours, as well as other sustainable alternatives to cotton and cashmere. 

“Bacterial cellulose is inherently vegan, and its growth requires a tiny fraction of the carbon emissions, water, land use and time of farming cows for leather,” explained lead author of the study Professor Tom Ellis. “Unlike plastic-based leather alternatives, bacterial cellulose can also be made without petrochemicals, and will biodegrade safely and non-toxically in the environment.” 

The researchers have been awarded £2 million (around €2.3 million) in funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), to continue their work and create more sustainable and toxin-free textile alternatives.

Springwise has spotted other eco-friendlier leather alternatives, including one made from beer brewing waste and another made from discarded flowers.

Written By: Lauryn Berry




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