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Fashion Institute of Technology team wins Biodesign Challenge

In a high-tech twist on the Rumpelstiltskin fairytale, students from the Fashion Institute of Technology spun bacteria and fungi into yarn to win the first Biodesign Challenge.  

Nine leading U.S. colleges and universities participated in the competition that offers art and design students the opportunity to create projects in architecture, water, food, materials, energy, medicine and other areas where biological design could make a dramatic difference.

The FIT team comprises three students from the Fashion Design program’s knitwear specialization—Tessa Callaghan ’16, Gian Cui ’17, and Aleksandra Gosiewski ’17—and Aaron Nesser, who studies at Pratt Institute. FIT faculty mentors Theanne Schiros and Asta Skocir provided guidance in the areas of science (physics, chemistry and sustainability) and knitwear design, respectively. The team began with observations about the wastefulness of textile mills, noting that the fashion industry is the second largest polluter in the world.

For their winning project, the FIT team created a material out of alginate (algae) and chitosan (fungi). Rather than looking at this material solely as a molecular structure, they examined it through a fashion designer’s lens. As a result, they extruded it from a syringe as a filament and knitted the “yarn” into fabric.

The students spent months experimenting with different formulas of the biomaterial, curious to see how much it would stretch. They tested an early version of the knitted filament in FIT’s textile testing labs, where they discovered, to their surprise, that it stretched 70 percent beyond its original length. The team also customized a 3D printer to make a mesh version of the biomaterial, which stretched 50 percent.

The resulting textile, though not ready for production, represents a sustainable alternative to conventional fabrics. It is biodegradable and can also be used as a nutrient for growing more wearable materials. As part of their presentation, the students displayed a small T-shirt they hand-knit from the yarn.

The competition was stiff. A number of the schools that participated in the challenge—including University of Pennsylvania, New York University, Carnegie Mellon University, and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute—are renowned for their science programs, while the remaining competing schools―the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Maryland Institute College of Art and Southern California Institute of Architecture―are known for their creative capabilities. 

The prize was announced at the Museum of Modern Art after the projects were judged by 13 leaders in biotechnology, design, and education. Keynote speakers at the event, included Paola Antonelli, the museum’s senior curator of Architecture and Design, and Suzanne Lee, creative director of Modern Meadow, a biofabrication company based in SUNY Downstate Medical Center’s Biotechnology Incubator that grows leather from living cells to benefit consumers, animals and the planet. 

The Biodesign Challenge was created by Dan Grushkin, a writer and the founder of GenSpace, a nonprofit that promotes education in molecular biology for both children and adults. 

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