The world’s first microbe-grown headset

Experimental science collaboration Korvaa developed a headset made exclusively from microbially grown materials.

Synthetic biology (synbio) is a rapidly developing that enables the design and engineering of new biological organisms, as well as the redesign of existing biological systems. Synthetic organisms can be made to produce a variety of chemicals, materials, medicine or fuels from renewable raw materials, waste materials and even CO2. This technology can help in the transition from fossil-based to circular economy.

Korvaa is a collaboration between synbio scientists, industrial designers, artists and filmmakers creating a headset made with microbial materials. It is an initiative made to raise awareness and highlight the potential opportunities in synthetic biology. The name comes from the Finish word ‘Korva’ which means ear, and ‘Korvaa’, which means to substitute.

A headset consists of a variety of materials, from hard plastic to foam-like materials and mesh fabrics. This is why the collaboration chose a headset as their first physical implementation of microbial grown materials.

Each part of the headset uses microbe-grown materials with different properties. 3D printed and microbial grown PLA (bioplastic), made from lactic acid produced by the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae, commonly known as baker’s yeast, is used for the rigid frame of the headset. Fungal mycelium is turned into a leather-like material, which is used to cover the soft foam, which is made from the foaming protein hydrophobin mixed with plant cellulose. The mesh fabric is made from microbially produced spider silk. The material is made with an electrospinning method, which turns it in a strong, flexible yarn. Other materials used in the headset are microbially produced cellulose, which is naturally lignin free, and is produced much faster than plant cellulose, and a composite material of mycelium and bacterial cellulose, which turns into a hard, light material.

”As designers, we look for certain properties and qualities in materials when we design products. For now, certain compromises had to be made. However, it’s a rapidly developing field of research and we’re excited to see what happens in this area in the next years, and the implications for various industries, how these materials are used”, Saku Sysiö, a designer at Aivan, one of the contributors of the projects, explains.

The designers made two versions of the headset, one of how it looks like now and one of how they hope it will look in the future.

The project will be displayed at the Fiskars Village Art & Design Biennale 2019, open from 19 May until 19 September, and during Helsinki Design Week 2019, 5-15 September.

Photos: Korvaa / Pentti Pällijeff