Performance fibers—which can stretch, repel water, and take on fluorescent hues—make clothing a lot more comfortable, safe, flattering, and fun. Unfortunately, producing these “miracle fibers” is devastating to our environment, flooding rivers with toxic chemicals and spreading microplastics into oceans.
In 2018, three Textile Development and Marketing students—Valentina Gomez ’20, Morgana Kattermann ’19, and Chui-Lian Lee ’18—set out to engineer biodegradable performance fibers without toxicity. Their team, Werewool, competed in the 2018 Biodesign Challenge, a global undergraduate biotechnology competition that FIT won in 2016. Theanne Schiros, assistant professor of Science, who acted as campus coordinator and faculty adviser for the Biodesign Challenge program, was so excited by Werewool’s possibilities, she joined the team as a co-founder in 2019.
This spring, their four-member startup attracted international attention from both the science and business communities by winning a 250,000-euro Global Change Award, a sustainable innovation challenge initiated by the H&M Foundation. Werewool was one of five winners out of nearly 6,000 entries from 175 countries.
Werewool is harnessing the tools of synthetic biology to design protein fibers with performance properties inspired by organisms in nature.
“In nature, proteins are responsible for all sorts of amazing functional properties,” Schiros says. “Organisms evolve them for survival, UV protection, or to ward off predators. We’ve been coding these proteins to be part of a textile fiber.”
For example, casein, a milk protein, is water-resistant. What if that protein could be grown in a lab as fiber with its waterproof properties intact? Elastin is a stretchy protein found in connective tissue. If that protein could be mass-produced and turned into a fiber, it could replace spandex, a petroleum-based fiber that renders clothing non-recyclable. And almost every color we wear is found in nature; with those proteins, fibers could be produced with the color built in, skirting the toxic, water-intensive dyeing process.
“There are more possible combinations of proteins from different organisms than there are stars in the galaxy,” Schiros says. “This takes sustainability from being limiting—what you can’t do—to being expansive, a really exciting platform for innovation.”
The research follows the protocols of synthetic biology, a field devoted to engineering organisms to sustainably produce proteins that could be used in a range of industries. First, the Werewool team isolates the genome of the functional protein in question (such as the red fluorescent protein that gives coral its bright color), then inserts the DNA plasmid into E. coli microbes, which produce that protein as they multiply.
“There are more possible combinations of proteins from different organisms than there are stars in the galaxy.”
“We use microbes as raw material factories, to produce the feedstock of our fibers,” Schiros explains. “It’s the basics of protein engineering.”
Then they cross-link the proteins they created to strengthen them, and finally extrude a fiber. Their challenge is to make the fibers strong enough to create a sturdy textile, and then scale up production for manufacturing.
“Proteins in nature are goopy molecules,” Schiros explains. “Our big breakthrough was to link them together to form a fiber with the function intact. If we can scale that to actual fibers, it’s potentially revolutionary. We could make, for example, hot pink disco pants that are biodegradable and low-impact.”
Gomez, Kattermann, and Lee met in January 2018 on a study-abroad trip in India, a sustainable textile production tour organized by Susanne Goetz, associate professor of Textile/Surface Design.
“It was really eye-opening,” Gomez says. “The clothes we get here in the States, you don’t think about how they’re being produced in other countries.”
As part of that year’s Biodesign Challenge, Stella McCartney and PETA offered a prize to a team who created an animal-free wool. The students aimed to create keratin, the structural protein in wool, using microbes. But they soon realized that this wouldn’t work, because the hair follicle on the sheep is what shapes the keratin into wool, and they couldn’t replicate such a complex biological structure.
Next they looked to tubulin, the protein that makes up capillaries—tiny blood vessels—as a possible replacement for wool. Schiros connected them with Sebastian Cocioba, a biologist at Binomica Labs, a research laboratory in New York. As an adviser for Werewool, Cocioba expanded their vision of what was possible.
“He said, ‘Did you know the proteins you’re trying to make can also be colorful, stretchy, hard, and waterproof?’” Lee recalls. “We realized this would solve so many problems for the textile industry. That’s how Werewool was born.”
At the Biodesign Challenge Summit that year, they presented a red fluorescent fiber they’d made by producing a red protein found in coral. They didn’t win, but they saw a future in their line of inquiry. With Schiros’s help, they went “lab-hopping”—furthering their research wherever they could find bench space. In spring 2019, FIT named them Genspace Scholars, giving them lab space and instruction in the Brooklyn-based Genspace. That’s where they learned about biomimicry, design based on nature’s efficient, sustainable processes. Schiros also won a grant from the National Science Foundation to help support Werewool’s research.
Schiros came on as co-founder to oversee the science program, and together they applied to the Biomimcry Launchpad, an incubator run by the Biomimicry Institute that helps entrepreneurs evolve their innovations into businesses. As part of the Launchpad, they took classes, met with an adviser, and practiced storytelling, an essential skill when seeking investors. The program culminated in early 2020 with a weeklong bootcamp expedition in Panama, “one of the most amazing experiences of my life,” Gomez says.
They also became finalists for the Biomimicry Institute’s Ray of Hope Prize, a $100,000 award for sustainable innovation. Judging is scheduled for later this summer.
They discovered they’d won the Global Change Award this spring—and it’s a major step forward. As part of the award, they are participating in a yearlong accelerator program that introduces them to a community of sustainability-minded entrepreneurs and investors. This global recognition and exposure will help them apply for funding to expand their research until it’s ready to be seen by investors. They are currently using bench space at Columbia University; with enough funding, they could build a dedicated independent lab.
“The award has given us industry validation and connected us to the industry,” Lee says. “Now we can push past the basic science to something that could be a product.”
“It’s very hopeful to see all the cool innovations other people are doing,” Kattermann adds. “It’s a light at the end of the tunnel—we can see that people care and are trying!”
Though the COVID-19 pandemic has halted their research, the Werewool team is still hard at work looking for more funding and opportunities to make their wild idea into a reality.
“When we were students, it was this overwhelming thing, learning about all the ways the industry is ruining the environment,” Lee says. “I didn’t know what I could do about it and wished I could do something. Now we’re trying to do something.”