We’ve joined forces with bioengineer Marcus Walker to investigate the role synthetic biology could play in the future of fashion. Walker, as part of his PHD in bioengineering at Imperial College London, has used genetic engineering techniques to develop a self-dyeing bacteria that produces both cellulose and melanin, a natural pigment found in squid ink, hair, and skin. Employing this bacterium in our microbial weaving process, we have grown the first ever sneaker with an upper woven and coloured by a single genetically modified organism (GMO). It’s also 100% compostable and contains no petrochemical-based materials or dyes.
Sharing a vision for the future where design and science work together to create fabrication systems better informed by biology, we hope the project will encourage further interdisciplinary collaboration and inspire a public conversation around synthetic biology and genetic modification.
The project was made possible through the support of The Mills Fabrica, Hong Kong Innospace, and Tom Ellis Lab at Imperial College.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ’s)
No, the bacteria produce the material and the colour but the shoe was sterilised and all the bacteria washed out before it left the lab.
The process is still under development so it’s impossible to answer that definitively at this time but the grown material is low energy, required less than 10L of water to grow/process, and is 100% compostable.
The black colour comes from a pigment called melanin which is found in nature in skin, hair, and squid ink. The bacteria have been genetically modified to produce melanin in addition to cellulose, which they produce naturally.
It currently takes about 10–14 days to grow and turn black.
The bacteria are derived from an edible strain called k.rhaeticus. All the materials and pigments are non-toxic and found in nature, just not in this combination. Of course, much more research would need to be done to verify all processes are safe to humans and the planet before it could be sold commercially. The sample was also sterilised before leaving the lab.
As this is the first prototype to ever be grown in this way, this particular sample is not wearable. But there is ongoing research to explore how it could be.
No, just the upper material.
Nature has already created the ultimate circular economy: Life. We believe we can still learn a lot from biology to make things in a way that won’t hurt people or the planet. But changes this big are hard work and are going to take some time. We need to share the little wins just as much as the big ones. And maybe in doing so we can inspire others to try and help us.
First of all, simply because it is. It’s not speculative—it was grown in a lab using genetically modified organisms (GMO). We think transparency is the best policy and want to reach a wider audience that maybe isn’t aware that this is even possible. The best outcome would be public discussion on the topic and we would love to hear what people think.
Marcus Walker | Bioengineer
Marcus is a synthetic biologist and PHD candidate in the Tom Ellis Lab at Imperial College London. His research focuses on reprogramming bacteria that produce bacterial cellulose to make new sustainable materials.
The science of life or living matter in all its forms and phenomena, especially with reference to origin, growth, reproduction, structure, and behaviour.
An insoluble substance which is the main constituent of plant cell walls and of vegetable fibers such as cotton. It’s the most abundant polymer on the planet.
Genetic engineeringThe deliberate modification of the characteristics of an organism by manipulating its genetic code.
A genetically modified organism is created by humans using genetic engineering.
A natural pigment found in squid ink, skin, and hair.
Microorganisms that have been employed by humans to assemble materials or other building blocks, like polymers and proteins. Sometimes they’re found in nature, sometimes they’re GMOs.
An interdisciplinary area that involves the application of engineering principles to biology. It aims at the redesign and fabrication of biological components and systems that don’t already exist in the natural world.