Shirts, shoes, and even magazines—all from a petri dish. Sound weird? Not to scientists at the University of Texas at Austin. Botanist R. Malcolm Brown and graduate student David R. Nobles have found that nine species of some of the oldest organisms on the planet called cyanobacteria naturally secrete cellulose—an essential component of all sorts of materials, including paper and fabric.
Cellulose is normally extracted from wood or cotton. But both sources contain impurities that are expensive to remove. For years, Brown has been looking for organisms that make a purer form of cellulose. Cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae, are a near-perfect candidate—they live mainly off water and light. But they don't have the stamina to pump out the stuff on an industrial scale.
The Texas team, however, is trying to genetically engineer the organisms to up their cellulose output. One day, vast cellulose sheets could be skimmed off ponds of growing algae and the gelatinous goo turned into all sorts of materials. "We might never need to harvest trees again for wood or pulp," Nobles says.