Page 46 - S Summer 2024
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Bacterial Culture
Biotech startup Modern Synthesis wants nanocellulose to be the fashion industry’s next hot thing.
By Nour Abi-Nakhoul
C ellulose, the most abundant natural polymer on Earth, is found in nearly everything produced by nature. It’s in fruits, in vegetables,
in cotton and linen and wood. On a small scale, bacteria make a strong, fine version of it, creating tight networks out of the small fibres. This tiny material, called nanocellulose, is already used in things such as hydrating face masks and even nata de coco, a dessert popular in Southeast Asia; it’s also what the ambitious, London-based biotechnology startup Modern Synthesis wants to make your new favourite purse or shoe out of.
Modern Synthesis is the creation of Jen Keane, a material designer previously with Adidas, and Dr. Ben Reeve, a bioengineering PhD with
a specialty in bacteria. While working in the sportswear industry, Keane became aware of the magnitude of the problems of sustainability in relation to the materials we use. “This was eight to 10 years ago, and even at that time we realized that plastics pollution was a real problem, and
the direct link with greenhouse gas emissions,” says Keane. She worked on a project collecting ocean-polluting plastic and turning it into recycled materials, but, although she thought it was a first step, she knew that
sort of initiative wouldn’t be the end solution to the massive problem.
As part of her master’s project, Keane used a type of bacteria known for its use in kombucha to produce the upper part of a shoe, which was created by a single strand of yarn held in place by the nanocellulose. While working on the project she collaborated with scientists and researchers who were working with nanocellulose, including Dr. Reeve. The two would go on to found Modern Synthesis together in 2019; the name referencing the convergence of the theories of evolution in the early 20th century, which can be taken as either a bold or cheeky assertion that nanocellulose will become the new standard for contemporary materials.
The process of creating materials from nanocellulose is relatively
straightforward, at least at first glance: bacteria are given sugar to feast on, which they then convert into nanocellulose. The nanocellulose is enhanced to create a biofilm that can then be combined with a natural textile to create a non-woven material that can be shaped to look like different things or given different properties: it can be made to look like leather, or to look synthetic and transparent. It can be thick or thin, soft or hard. It can even potentially have custom scents or colour-changing properties added to it. Keane explains how in the past, “we’ve had things like leather where you have a skin, and then you’d have to manipulate it a bit to get it to change.” But with nanocellulose, the material’s properties can be controlled at each level, widening the scope of possibility in terms of what you can create. “Traditionally, we take what we find off the shelf and then make a beautiful style. Now it’s like, how could we redesign this from the beginning?”
Recently the startup collaborated with Danish fashion label GANNI to create a nanocellulose version of the brand’s staple Bou Bag, which will be commercially available in 2025. The hexagonal silhouette betrays nothing of its bacterial origins, although the interesting grid pattern mapped out over the material carries a certain uniqueness, marking itself as not just another animal- or plant-based leather.
Though there is a desire to change in the fashion industry, “there are some preconceived notions that are entrenched by hundreds of years of designing with the materials we have,” says Keane. Modern Synthesis will sometimes run into people who want to compare nanocellulose to what already exists, but Keane questions whether wanting to make something that looks exactly like leather is the best design choice for our new era. Instead, it might be time to lean into outside-the-box thinking, and evolve our understanding of materials to create a sustainable future for fashion from the ground up.

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