DNA T Shirt
Made with genetically engineered self-replicating microorganisms, and DNA.
- Dye produced from DNA of the indigo plant
- Grown in a petri dish and fermentation machine
- Garment dyed for softness
DNA doesn’t just make us, us. It also makes many of the colours we see in the natural world. So instead of using synthetic dyes to colour the DNA T Shirt, we use genetically engineered microorganisms and DNA.
If you’re wondering how to genetically engineer the colour blue, you access one of the world’s open-source biomolecular databases, select a protein enzyme found in the cells of the indigo plant, implant its DNA sequence into a self-replicating single bacterial cell, brew that bacteria like beer, then submerge the sweatshirt in the DNA soup we’ve brewed up. The enzyme produces different shades of colour depending on the types of sugars we feed it during fermentation, so the specific blue colour of each t shirt will be a little bit different.
You’ve already got about 16 billion kilometres of DNA inside you. In case that’s not quite enough, you might like a DNA T Shirt.
A quick recap on what DNA is exactly
DNA is the biological molecule that contains the genetic code an organism needs to develop, survive and reproduce. It is found in most cells of every organism. The differences in DNA are why one person has blue eyes rather than brown, why giraffes have long necks and why you’ll find more than a thousand different varieties of mango in India. Every human cell contains around 6 feet of DNA. With around 10 trillion cells inside each human, that means each person has around 60 trillion feet, or 16 billion kilometres of DNA inside them.
DNA doesn’t just make us, us. It also makes many of the colours we see in the natural world.
A step by step guide to making clothes with DNA
The first step is selecting the colour you want that exists in nature. Luckily you’ll find them in one of the world’s open-source biomolecular databases – like the Universal Protein Resource in Switzerland, or GenBank in Maryland which houses a collection of sequences for 300,000+ organisms. Starting life in the 1980s, today they look after sequences for species from around the world – from plants and animals, to insects and microbes – and their libraries are doubling roughly every 18 months.
Implanting the DNA into a bacterial cell
Next comes the fun bit, as you’ll need to imagine a microbiologist with some rubber gloves, a microscope, and a big needle. Because we then implant the DNA sequence of the indigoid-producing enzyme into a microorganism – in this case it’s a single bacterial cell in a petri dish which self-replicates every 20 minutes. And as it replicates, it produces more and more indigo pigment.
From a petri dish to a high-tech brewery
To make enough colour to dye clothes we obviously need more than just a petri dish of indigo. So we send our genetically engineered microorganisms to RDD, a cutting-edge dyehouse in Portugal. Here they’re grown in the same way you’d brew beer – through fermentation. The cells are added to a fermentation machine with water, sugar, yeast and plant waste. The more you feed them, the more they grow. And by doubling every 20 minutes they quickly create enough liquid to start dyeing a t shirt.
Dyed in a giant bath of DNA dye
To dye our DNA T Shirt, we submerge it in the bacterial soup we’ve brewed up. The bacteria latch onto the surface of the t shirt and start to release their colour into the fibres of the material. The indigoid-producing enzyme generates different shades of colour depending on the types of sugars we feed it during fermentation. So the DNA T Shirt comes in two different shades of blue.
The birth of synthetic dyes
Then in 1856 everything changed. While searching for a new malaria treatment, 18 year old chemist William Henry Perkin was experimenting with coal tar – a thick, black substance derived, obviously, from coal. Instead he stumbled upon the world’s first synthetic dye – an oily solution that turned fabric purple. Perkin called it mauveine. His discovery sparked a colour revolution that altered the course of history.
Rethinking how colour is made
Vastly superior both in terms of cost and scalability, chemical synthetic dyes quickly started replacing natural dyes on an industrial scale. 167 years later it’s why we now get to choose from a kaleidoscope of colour when we buy clothes. But while synthetic dyes have brought lots of benefits, it comes at a real environmental cost. So our aim is to rethink how colour is made.
When we first started making clothing, the idea of getting to work with DNA was as improbable and far off as working with single layer graphene, vantablack, or kryptonite.
DNA could change the story of colour
70 years ago this year, a 36-year-old molecular biologist and biophysicist named Francis Crick got to his feet in the middle of lunch at his local pub, The Eagle, and announced that he and his colleague James Watson had “found the secret of life.” Head to the outside of the pub today and look up, and you’ll find a small blue plaque that commemorates both the pub’s place in history and one of the greatest discoveries of the 20th century. “DNA Double Helix 1953 ‘The Secret of Life,’” it reads.
It won’t be the first field it’s changed forever
Their discovery changed our understanding of the world. In 1990, the Human Genome Project, an international scientific research study with the goal of identifying, mapping and sequencing all of the genes in the human genome, began. In 1996, Dolly the Sheep was cloned. In 1999, the first human chromosome was decoded. In 2000, the genetic code of the fruit fly, all 13,601 genes, was sequenced. In 2003 the Human Genome Project was completed, and it remains the world’s largest collaborative biological project.
A lower impact t shirt
The entire process reduces water consumption by at least 49%, electricity by 35%, and CO2 emissions by 31% compared with conventional dyeing. The t shirt itself is made from 100% cotton that’s been certified by the Better Cotton Initiative. BCI is a non-profit, global body committed to ensuring the best possible standards for cotton communities, while protecting and restoring the environment at the same time.
Size + Fit
The DNA T Shirt is designed with a regular fit.
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