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Making Clothes from Microbes

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With her "biocouture" fashion line, Suzanne Lee is growing the clothes of tomorrow in a lab.

By Jessica Grose

The studio smells like vinegar. Inside, Suzanne Lee is fermenting fabric in a vast temperature-controlled tub of yeast, bacteria, and a sugary green tea solution. But she’s not soaking cotton or polyester; she’s actually creating new fabric from this noxious concoction. The material is a by-product of the fermentation process, and after it stews in the tub for about two weeks, it will be thick enough to make into clothes. At that point, Lee will either mold the wet material around a dress form and let it dry into a seamless frock or allow the fabric to dry out in large sheets before she stitches it together like cotton. (She favors patterned bomber jackets and vaguely Victorian ruffled coats.)

Lee, 44, didn’t study science in school. Growing up in England, she loved the subject until her teens, when an abrasive teacher pushed her away from it. So instead, she pursued art. Then, as she began contemplating the future of fashion and environmentalism, her passion was reignited.

In 2003, as a researcher at Central Saint Martins College in London, she coined the term “biocouture.” The word refers to the process of growing fabric from naturally sustainable materials—not just microorganisms like bacteria but also plant matter like cellulose and chitin, found in the walls of mushrooms and the exoskeletons of lobsters.

At first, Lee’s work was purely a mental exercise—Where is fashion going to be in 50 years?—but over the past decade, with the help of biologist David Hepworth, Lee has transformed her curiosity into clothing. The results are striking. The material she uses—which Lee has described as “a kind of vegetable leather”—gives the clothes a high-fashion sheen. But are they marketable to the masses?

To produce a simple microbial dress on an industrial scale, a company would have to create a 3-D dress mold and drop it into an enormous fermentation vat so the bacteria could grow around it. For shoppers, the downside is that clothes made this way do biodegrade, but depending on how the materials were treated, it could take years for them to do so, Lee says. In fact, they’d still probably last longer than a cheap T-shirt.

But facilities that could produce a dress this way don’t exist yet. “You can find giant fermentation vats, but they’re not focused on or designed for individual objects,” Lee says. “They’re designed to make an enormous soup of enzymes,” like the vegan protein Quorn.

Nonetheless, right now, Lee sees biomaterials as “an emerging landscape.” In 2012, she launched a consulting business, also called Biocouture, that advises brands on how to manufacture clothing from biological materials. Confidentiality agreements prevent her from talking in depth about the brands she works with and the specific materials they’re using, but she predicts clothing made from these biomanufactured materials could be in stores within the next two to three years.

In fact, she hypothesizes that at some point, we may use the technique to make products as complicated as shoes—which involve multiple materials for structure and stretch. When they first hit shelves, these items will be expensive. But Lee expects the market to drive prices down within 10 to 20 years. The trick will be to find a process that has a cheap food stock, say, a waste stream of sugar, which could fuel the vat of bacteria—for “very simple, easily scalable manufacturing.”

At a time when traditional materials and labor are so expensive that manufacturing tends to be dominated by large corporations, it’s reassuring to think that one day we will be able to grow our own wardrobes—one microscopic creature at a time.

This story originally appeared in mental_floss magazine. Subscribe to our print edition here, and our iPad edition here.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]