Teens Breaking Microbial Stereotypes

With all the fears of invisible pathogens out there right now, I had the pleasure of joining a group of teenage girls working to combat microbial stereotypes this weekend. Calling themselves Bio Buddies, they demonstrated how to use bacterial cellulose to create "clothes" for paper cutout characters.

What's bacterial cellulose? It's the same fibrous polymer plants use to make stems and trunks, but made by bacteria. BC's, as they are sometimes called, are getting some attention from industry lately because they have a high tensile strength and a soft pliable texture. Just like...leather. But less expensive, more humane, and better for the environment than growing a cow.

The Bio Buddies, based in the Bay Area, cooked up batches of bacterial cellulose by making kombucha tea, which forms a cellulose mat called a scoby in the bottom. Scoby is actually an acronym for Symbiotic Community of Bacteria and Yeast. Oh, how I love a good symbiosis! In this version, the yeast takes sugar that's added to the tea, and ferments it, releasing alcohol. The alcohol feeds the bacteria, which turns it into vinegar, in the process producing cellulose.

To the tea, the girls added sugar and food coloring, waited a few weeks, harvested the scoby, and dried it. Voila! Bacterial leather. Then they packaged up their leather along with cards with laser cutouts of people in various poses and sent them out to the hundred or so people scattered all over the globe who had signed up for their workshop.

When I unboxed my package, I discovered that the kombucha leather itself was pliable and slightly transparent. Like regular leather, the dye was imperfect, giving it an organic and very beautiful hue. Unlike regular leather, it was easy, even satisfying, to cut. I glued my leather in place to create fashion for my cutout characters, but other people used just water, which made the leather a little sticky and even created cool dye stains.

If you want to give this activity a try, here are links to their directions. Hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

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