Editor's Note: The annual TED Conference (Feb. 26-Mar. 4) is an invitation-only affair known as the place where high-tech tycoons, Nobel laureates, and other very smart people gather to share ideas that will inspire. The TED Fellows program was established to give people who wouldn't ordinarily have the opportunity—or the means—a chance to present their remarkable work to an audience that just might include Bill Gates and Al Gore. In a series leading up to TED, Businessweek.com will feature interviews conducted via e-mail with a handful of this year's fellows.
Suzanne Elizabeth Lee
Director, The BioCouture Research Project
Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, London
If Suzanne Lee's work catches on, one day we may exchange clothing recipes the way we swap casserole concoctions:
Mix bacteria and yeast.
Add mixture to a large tub of sweetened green tea (any sweet solution will do.)
Let sit undisturbed for two to three weeks.
A "mat" will form on the surface. Remove and let dry.
Discard the solution.
Use the mat to sew a traditional garment.
Lee, 41, is a British fashion designer and the driving force behind BioCouture, a method she created for growing clothes from a bacterial/cellulose solution that may be the ultimate eco-friendly operation requiring few environment-taxing resources to produce.
How did you go from jeans to genes?
I had a conversation with a biologist in an art gallery and he persuaded me that it was possible to grow a dress from microbes. It was the craziest thing I had ever heard, but I'm a bit of a science fiction fan and I thought it sounded like an interesting challenge. He explained about how microbial-cellulose is produced using a fermentation process. My training is as a fashion designer so it was natural for me to try to use the material for clothing. It started out as a bit of fun a few years back, but as the global sustainability agenda grew I realized how this answered some pressing questions.
What was the first piece of clothing you "grew"?
The first garment was actually a shirt made back in 2004.
Did you try a lot of recipes before you found a suitable solution to grow clothes?
Actually, no, the recipe is based on that used for producing kombucha, a health drink that people have brewed for millennia. The cellulose is actually the by-product of the bacteria fermenting in a nutrient solution. We have explored the recipe somewhat along with ideal growth conditions, garment construction, and subsequent dye/printing treatments.
Can anything that uses fabric—car seats, for example—be replaced by material made through this process?
In theory, yes. Obviously the textile requirements for each application might be different and so would need specific engineering or finishing, but essentially yes.
Do you have different recipes for different clothes?
I can control the material quality to some extent by altering the recipe but radical variations will need more research into how to actually modify the bacteria. Rather than different clothes, I have my eye on the wider applications of the material for consumer, interior, automotive, architectural uses.
Can you make clothes in different colors?
Yes, you can actually grow them in a colored solution or easily dye them after. Unlike cotton, it readily takes dye so you need only minimal amounts, another environmental plus.
What does the finished material feel like?
Feels like vegetable leather, quite smooth and skin-like.
What size tubs do you use and how many do you have going at any time. Is the size of the "tub" a factor in how much is produced?
I'm producing small quantities using a static culture. This produces strong sheets of material that are the exact surface area of the growth bath. The thickness depends on the length of time left to grow and the provision of sufficient nutrient. Because I only make one-off prototypes or exhibition pieces and need to be able to handle it myself (it's very heavy when wet), my bath size is about 1.2m by 0.6m. For TED, I have four baths set up, but in the summer when I can harness outdoor space I have a mini fabric farm, about 20 tubs.
How durable is the material? Have you tried putting any of it into a washing machine to see if it holds up?
One of the key issues with the material is its absorbency. Naturally it is a super-absorbent sponge, able to soak up and hold a huge weight in water (100 times its weight in water, to be precise). This in itself might be of interest for certain applications. For clothing, however, it is a problem. There are a couple of potential solutions. First, we could just apply a water-repellent coating to the surface like a traditional cloth, but to me this would most likely be a nasty chemical which goes against the ethos of what I'm trying to do. The far more interesting (and challenging) solution would be to look at engineering the microorganism itself and the production process using synthetic biology and chemical engineering to produce a bacteria that produces hydrophobic nanofibers.
So to answer your question, right now, yes, it holds together in a washing machine but comes out like a heavy wet sponge and takes too long to dry out.
Have you tried to commercialize your designs? Any clothing stores or designers interested in BioCouture?
Lots of commercial interest from all sectors, not just fashion, but needs more research to scale up and produce viable quality.
Have you made anything that you wear?
I'm hoping to wear something for TED! It's growing right now but a bit too slowly, so I'm praying it will be ready in time.
Lady Gaga wore a dress made from meat; do you think she'd wear one of your creations?
If she'll wear meat, why not?! In my opinion this is far more palatable and perhaps weirder.
So what are you planning to wear to TED?
A little jacket and possibly a clutch bag for evening!