Is there nothing bacteria can't do? Under the careful eye of researcher and designer Natsai Audrey Chieza, the itsy-bitsy organisms have taken on an unexpected new role in the fashion industry, offering a beautiful and environmentally friendly alternative to commercial dyes.
Fashion is currently facing "an existential crisis," Chieza told Mental Floss, "around the fact that it's the second-most polluting industry in the world." It's got problems coming and going: Textile production uses huge amounts of water and yields high amounts of petrochemical waste.
Contemplating these issues, Chieza began to wonder if the solution could be biological. She began tinkering with Streptomyces bacteria, coaxing them to release their own rich natural pigments into small swatches of silk.
It's unlike any other printing process she's ever experienced, she explained, because the living bacteria are both invisible to the naked eye and somewhat finicky artistic collaborators. Room temperature, pH levels, and the size of their petri dish home all influence the way the microbes lay down their dye.
Chieza's background is in art and design, so once she knew she'd hit on something interesting, she started looking for scientific collaborators. After a stint working with synthetic biologists as designer-in-residence at University College London, Chieza crossed paths with Christina Agapakis, creative director at the self-described "organism design platform" Ginkgo Bioworks.
"Our expertise is in microbes and how to work with them and keep them happy," Agapakis tells Mental Floss. "We think that biology is such an amazing way to make stuff."
The artist and the organism designers are now "developing a lot of different things all at the same time," Chieza says. One of their biggest questions is scale—how a microscopic process could be enlarged to dye entire garments and yards of cloth, moving "from the biological to the body to architectural."
"At Ginkgo," she continues, "we're wondering how much we can make so that it can actually plug in to the demand for material resources. How do we bridge the difference between 250 milliliters and 50,000 liters?"
Part of the puzzle involves building all-new technology to house the all-new dyeing process, and ensuring that both are environmentally sound and resource-conservative.
At every step of the process, Chieza says she asks herself, "What does this all mean? How does this relate to society? Is it actually going to solve this problem?"
We're looking forward to finding out.