ARC Centre of Excellence in Synthetic Biology

Synthetic Biology


24, Jan 2024

Tonic to textiles

The fermented drink Kombucha could well become the foundation of new eco-friendly textiles, according to a research team exploring this possibility.

The highly popular beverage is produced by bacteria and yeast forming what’s called a SCOBY (Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast) within sweetened tea. In this community, the yeast breaks down sugar into smaller parts like glucose and fructose. These sugars are then used by the bacteria to create cellulose – a biopolymer that is used in the textiles and paper industries. Cellulose is not only a valuable resource but also a way to store glucose in this microbial world. Lately, scientists have been exploring how this cellulose might be used to make alternative textiles.

‘Our project has two big goals: firstly, to understand how all these microbes interact, and secondly, to create a completely sustainable version of the SCOBY that can absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere,’ says research project lead Dr Joachim Larsen, who is working with a cross-disciplinary team with funding from the Centre’s Bioplatforms Australia Omics Grant scheme.

‘We’re breaking it down into five steps: first, looking at different kombucha cultures and finding out which genes are involved in sugar breakdown. Then, we’ll measure how active these genes are in various conditions. Next, we’ll identify the proteins in these sugar pathways and study the substances made by the SCOBY. Finally, we aim to develop a synthetic version of SCOBY, or synSCOBY, that can make cellulose sustainably.

‘To do all this, we’re using a mix of “omics” techniques to look at the genes (genomics), how active they are (transcriptomics), the proteins (proteomics), and the metabolites made (metabolomics).’

Dr Larsen says the team are focusing on the whole SCOBY community, rather than a single organism, which makes this approach novel. The genetic data will help them to determine which genes are involved in cellulose biosynthesis and sugar breakdown. ‘This will help us understand the process of making cellulose within a SCOBY,’ he says.

The team also plan to engineer a cyanobacterium (bacteria that produces sugar from atmospheric carbon dioxide and sunlight) to secrete sugar. The yeast within the SCOBY community will help break this sugar down. Then, another bacterium called Komagataeibacter sp. will turn that sugar into cellulose.

The bacterial cellulose produced in kombucha cultures has exceptional properties, resembling traditional cellulose but with a finer and more consistent structure. This unique structure allows it to be a potential game-changer in textile manufacturing, the researchers say.

‘Bacterial cellulose textiles exhibit remarkable features,’ says Dr Larsen. ‘They are incredibly soft, highly absorbent, and possess outstanding strength, offering an eco-friendly alternative for various fabric applications. From clothing to medical dressings, the potential for bacterial cellulose textiles is vast, offering a sustainable and environmentally friendly option within the textile industry.’

He believes the project’s outcomes have the potential to revolutionise various sectors, such as the textile industry, introducing sustainable and eco-conscious methods to contribute to a greener future.

Project lead: Dr Joachim Larsen (ANU): Project team: Evan Gibbs (UoN), Dr Tiffanie Nelson (UoN), Luis Quijano (QUT), Dr Heema Vyas (USyd), Dr Axayacatl Gonzalez (UQ)