Growing a Shoe

The partnership between scientists, artists, and designers has often produced exciting and transformative technological advances. In particular, Humans have been capitalizing on bacteria for centuries and this last decade was no different, bringing about many exciting new advancements. Between CRISPR methods, biohybrid batteries and oil spill eating microbes, bacteria are long overdue for a profuse thank you. One novel technology in particular makes use of the cellulose-producing bacteria K. rhaeticus. Certain strains of the bacteria have been genetically manipulated to produce higher yields of bacterial cellulose. Cellulose, the stuff that makes up the inside of plant walls, is the most common polymer found on earth and is an amazing biomaterial. Not to mention it’s edible! In fact, K. rhaeticus is one of the many bacteria found in the popular drink Kombucha. 

Bacterial cellulose is malleable, stronger than plant cellulose, and has a variety of applications. One designer and researcher, Jen Keane, has employed the bacteria to produce shoes that resemble the well known silhouettes of sneakers produced by Nike and Adidas. This is in part thanks to the flexibility when working with the bacteria. For example, their tiny size allows them to create more detailed weaves than what would be possible on a traditional loom. Scientists will string a piece of yarn into any shape which acts as a biological scaffold for the bacteria to embed in and produce their cellulose around. The process takes around 10-14 days for the upper area of the shoe to be grown and requires no sewing. Jen Keane’s work for her Master’s degree can be found on her website and her project regarding the microbial weaving is titled, “this is grown.”

In addition to its other desirable characteristics, bacterial cellulose has an edge when it comes to sustainability.  Americans dispose of around 70 pounds of textile waste annually. The majority of these textiles are made of plastic fibers like polyester, acrylic, and nylon. Unfortunately, when washing these plastic fabrics the short fibers that they are composed of are released into the water and eventually make their way into the ecosystem. Once in the ecosystem they end up in the bodies of fish and create long-term pollution due to their inability to decompose quickly. In stark contrast, bacterial cellulose is biodegradable and can be made to order, further cutting down on material waste. Unfortunately, bacterial cellulose is still expensive to produce and the process needs to be improved upon. However, this may be an indication that a functioning textile made of bacterial cellulose may not be too far off. More importantly, these sorts of cutting-edge projects will be essential as we move away from manmade fibers and the unethical aspects of the fashion industry. 

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