My aim or objective of this project was to test the artistic and functional limits of kombucha SCOBY (Symbiotic Culture Of Bacteria and Yeast). I chose this partly because it relates to my ongoing studies of gut health and mood, and as I began studying it I became interested in it as an environmentally friendly textile option. As this was a fairly open-ended project, I started out by consulting my Art in Science cohort, then I went on the collaborate with a microbiologist, and finally generated some artistic output in the form of microscopy photographs.
I had the privilege of getting my classmate’s and tutor’s input on my kombucha SCOBY work near the beginning of the semester, as I ran a short workshop for them. In this workshop, I had them feel my existing SCOBYs (there were three, all different thicknesses) and work out which of a variety of materials might be the best analogue for the SCOBY. The most popular material to use seemed to be the parchment paper, followed by gelatin leaves. Eggshell membranes did not go unnoticed, however, and covering gelatin with colored membranes had an interesting effect.
At the center of the table sat my brew I had at the time, which I was attempting to make large enough to use for a finished product of some kind.
Several people made origami boxes out of the parchment paper, and the idea of making such a thing out of a SCOBY and then filling it with a dry edible, such as popcorn, gained the group’s approval. Besides an edible container, using the material in any way that could (theoretically) replace plastic or leather was at the forefront of all our minds. The problem with this, however, is that SCOBYs are not waterproof. I did some research into this, and the best I could find is that a mixture of beeswax and coconut oil can make the material water-resistant, but not waterproof. So as nice as it may be to daydream of growing your own earthy, biodegradable shoes, the truth is that those shoes would turn into jelly if you found yourself caught in the rain. Ideally, I wanted to come up with a product that would actually benefit from its ability to drastically change composition when exposed to moisture.
It was time for me to take my practice to a professional scientist. After unsuccessfully attempting to get into contact with a scientist who is studying bacteria in the brain, my tutor managed to arrange a meeting for me with a microbiologist, Dr. Hobbs, who has previously worked with a fashion student to grow a kombucha SCOBY to use in clothing.
At the meeting, I learned some practical tips for growing and drying SCOBY material (i.e. – grow in large plastic packing box, dry on photo paper), as well as some ideas, like testing the SCOBY for antimicrobial properties. The antimicrobial property idea came up because I had been doing some digging into what other artists and DIY-biologists have made out of kombucha SCOBYs, and I had come across a SCOBY bandage. This intrigued me, as I had thought of this idea before but had hesitated to pursue it as I assumed that because the material itself is made up partly of bacteria, it would not be suitable for wound-dressing. Apparently, though, the pH of the culture inhibits the growth of harmful organisms. If this is true, I think developing a brand of biodegradable band-aids would be an interesting route down which to take my project. According to the professor, we could easily take samples of my own kombucha and an accompanying SCOBY and work out whether or not it can protect against certain kinds of bacteria. Even if this turns out to be a dead-end, I am curious to see how it goes.
We also discussed possibly impregnating the material with iodine (which apparently is often used in wound dressings), as well as looking at it under the scanning electron microscope to get a better image of its microscopic structure.
While researching possibilities of items to make out of my ever-growing supply of kombucha SCOBYs, I came across a biodesign and consultancy company called MakeGrowLab. Based in Poland, MakeGrowLab has developed various SCOBY products, including packaging and lamp shades. During a chat with a representative from MakeGrow, I learned that the company originally used kombucha SCOBY material, but now uses SCOBY grown from agricultural waste. Although tea is efficient to work with, agricultural waste is cheaper, more sustainable, and the SCOBY feels different. Algae-based biomaterials have also been used for similar purposes, but SCOBYs have a longer shelf life and contain antimicrobial properties that algae materials do not. They sell sheets of their biomaterial, so if I am ever in need of a large SCOBY and do not have time to grow one I may contact them.
In the Microbiology Lab
I met once again with Dr. Hobbs, this time at the science campus, where his microbiology laboratory is located. He gave me a tour of the lab, which was exciting to me as a former biology student who was missing the feeling of “doing science.” I found several aspects of this to be interesting that had nothing to do with my project. For instance, Dr. Hobbs is currently conducting experiments on the ways in which sound can affect the way microbes grow. It is a strange proposition – that some sound frequencies may influence the growth of organisms, and it is important to gather sufficient evidence to support it. He also showed me some microfermenters, and we talked about antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
We discussed the possibility of testing the SCOBY for antimicrobial properties, and visited the scanning electron microscope lab where I would like to take samples for imaging. For now, I left some samples of my SCOBY with him for testing, and am waiting to hear back from him about those.
Scanning Electron Microscopy
As it is nearing the end of the semester, I wanted to generate some artistic output from my SCOBY collaboration. Dr. Hobbs suggested I take a sample to the scanning electron microscope (SEM) lab. SEM scans a focused beam of electrons over the surface of a sample that has been coated in a conductive material (such as gold). The electrons that interact with the sample produce signals that are collected by detectors which display them on a computer screen. This creates finely-tuned images depicting an alien-like microscopic world. Below are some of the images I captured of three different kombucha SCOBYs of various maturities.
Sample A is the least mature SCOBY, and sample C is the most mature. A SCOBY consists mainly of yeast, bacteria, and cellulose.