Carolyn Bean, PNAS.org, May 10, 2023.
On a lab bench in Brooklyn, New York, a string-like fiber glows pink under a black light. In natural light, the strand loses its fluorescence, but keeps its rosy hue. Researchers at Werewool, a startup, aim to one day spin these fibers into yarn for fabric. Think hot pink yoga pants, says the company’s cofounder and chief science officer, Theanne Schiros.
This color may be fashion forward, but it’s not new. Indeed, the protein that colors this fiber has long made coral reefs glow. Schiros, an associate professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, and her team build fibers with proteins synthesized to match those in nature’s palette. “Everything we could ever want for our clothing, you can find in nature perfected over 3.8 billion years,” says Schiros, who’s also a materials scientist at Columbia University in New York. With colorful proteins, she has no need for toxic dyes. And once these yoga pants perform their final downward dog, the garment should decompose, rather than pile up in a landfill.
Nature-friendly fashion is a pressing need as the industry’s environmental impact grows. In 2021, 54% of fiber generated was polyester, a synthetic typically produced from petroleum (1). With each wash cycle, polyester garments shed microplastics into our water. When discarded, they persist in landfills for decades or longer. And making a single cotton T-shirt requires 2,700 liters of water, according to the World Wildlife Fund (2).
Could the industry reinvent fashion following nature’s lead? Researchers heading up pilot projects want to dress the world’s population in eco-friendly threads. To succeed, they’ll need to reach across disciplines, scale up nascent technologies, and convince a public enamored with fast fashion that polyester has lost its appeal.
Founded in 2018, Werewool is currently experimenting with colorful proteins often used as markers to make cells glow—like the yoga pants pink from the Discosomacoral (which in pure form glows red) or a green fluorescent protein from a jellyfish. To turn these biomedical workhorses into fiber, they tweak the DNA sequences that encode these proteins to make the resulting protein structures amenable to binding with other molecules. Researchers then engineer bacteria to produce the designer proteins, which the team harvests and mixes with biopolymers—long, repeating chains of small molecules that are naturally produced by living organisms.
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