From paints and dyes in a rainbow of colours, to sustainable fabric grown from little more than sunlight and air, bacteria can do so much more than just cause illness - they can be harnessed for positive, creative outcomes too.
Alongside his role as Senior Lecturer in Molecular Biology at the University of Surrey, Dr Simon Park is a bio artist who explores the beauty of bacteria and investigates how to utilise germs’ natural properties for revolutionary practical uses.
His work includes the development of a unique ‘living palette’ of naturally pigmented bacteria. He also explores the use of synthetic biology to tweak and subtly redirect the usual processes that bacteria possess to create new colours that could transform the textile dye industry.
To get the right shade of blue for jeans, for example, cotton yarns may be dipped a dozen times or more in enormous vats of synthetic indigo, which is often made from coal or oil. One of Dr Park’s projects is looking into ways to replace the synthetic dye with a natural and sustainable version.
Possible alternatives include IndoChrome, a natural dye produced by the bacterium Arthrobacter polychromogenes - a harmless bacterium usually found in soil - which is a deep blue pigment with a coppery metallic sheen. A striking blue is also produced when the bacterium Arthrobacter nicotinovorans acts upon nicotine.
Bacteria don’t just produce blue pigments, however, and Dr Park has collected a unique palette of brightly pigmented bacteria that are red, pink, orange, yellow, white and purple.
“Eventually, we hope these quasi-natural dyes will replace the ones currently produced through expensive and unsustainable chemical processes," said Dr Park. “The next steps will be to scale up the production of these colours, test them for permanence and safety, and to explore them in further applications like printing and painting.”
But it’s not just colour where bacteria could revolutionise the clothing industry.
Dr Park’s lab is also cultivating Helion, a unique and sustainable bio textile that can weave itself into a mat as it grows. Even more impressively, Helion can be produced from little more than air and sunlight due to the photosynthetic capacity of cyanobacterium Oscillatoria animalis, the bacteria used to create the fabric.
Dr Park said: “Research groups over the world are investigating sustainable bio textiles at the moment, but there’s no incentive from big companies to do so as existing processes are more convenient and well-established. However, things may change in the future, as bacteria are very easy to grow and certainly more environmentally friendly.
“The projects above are in their early developmental stages, and the clothes aren’t ready to be worn just yet. The work is also intended to provoke and stimulate interest in these unexpected applications of microbiology.”
Dr Park lectures on the Practical and Biomedical Bacteriology module undertaken by undergraduate biosciences students at Surrey. As part of the module, students ‘paint’ with coloured or glowing bacteria and analyse the germs lurking on their mobile phones.