At present, synthetic fibers dominate the textile industry. Up to 70% of the household textile products we use—everything from clothing to footwear—are made of petroleum-based materials like polyester and nylon. Whereas cotton contributes to only 23% of textiles despite having a lower carbon footprint than synthetic textiles.
But growing cotton plants in fields is an extremely labor-intensive process. Cotton crops also have a massive water footprint and consume approximately 40,000 liters per day. China, India, and the United States are the top cotton-producing countries. These three countries meet 70% of the world’s total cotton production volume not only because of cheap labor and mechanization, respectively, but also thanks to year-long sunny and humid weather conditions.
But climate change is wreaking havoc with global cotton production. Rising temperatures and frequent droughts have reduced freshwater access for irrigation. “The cotton industry is evolving slowly, and currently, we don't have cutting-edge technologies that can dramatically improve cotton yield and quality,” says Hong Zhang, a plant molecular biologist and professor at Texas Tech University. “We need new genotypes of cotton that can thrive with significantly lower volumes of water, fertilizers, and pesticides. Maybe by 2040, cotton yield might improve by 30-50% with advancements in the field of genetic engineering technology.”
But a Boston-based start-up called Galy claims that sustainable, lab-grown cotton might become a reality by 2030 thanks to their pioneering technology in cellular agriculture.
Since its inception in 2019, Galy has been isolating cell populations from different varieties of cotton plants and cultivating them in Petri dishes and flasks.
Those cell lines are preserved at extremely low temperatures through cryopreservation. In the next step, they are transferred inside bioreactors designed to provide the right environment and nutrients, transforming those cell populations into stem cells.
As the stem cells start to elongate and bind with cellulose and other proteins inside the bioreactors, eventually, cotton fibers get generated.
“It is a beautiful process. And while triggering the growth of cotton fibers inside bioreactors might sound like something out of a science fiction novel, our process has been working as planned,” says Luciano Bueno, CEO and co-founder of Galy.
“For instance, to take care of a houseplant requires enough sunlight, and you need to provide the right amount of water and nutrients whenever required. But in a bioreactor system, all these elements are present and ready to go. We can directly control the quality of the cotton fibers while they are inside the bioreactors and produce pure cotton,” he says.
Bueno and his team of 30 employees work directly with groups of cotton farmers based in the United States and Brazil to source the raw materials or a diverse range of cotton plants required for this convoluted process. The start-up has also been collaborating with biologists, physicists, and chemical and genetic engineers who are working towards fine-tuning its cellular agriculture technology.
“At scale, we might be able to produce cotton fibers within 18 to 20 days. As of now, the entire process takes approximately 40 to 50 days to produce cotton fibers,” Bueno adds. “There is a lot of trial and error involved in this process, and we have been trying out different microenvironments and varieties of cotton plants. But automation can help in speeding up this process. ”
He further claims that their method of cotton production is less energy-intensive than conventional farming. By 2030, Galy aims to produce half a million tons of cotton annually.
Galy faces some hurdles, however. While the process of cultivating animal cells in a lab has advanced at a rapid pace in the last few years, biologists are still struggling to understand the exact mechanisms that trigger plant cell growth and cell division — which makes it immensely challenging to develop and grow cotton embryos in a lab for producing cotton fibers at an industrial scale.
Commenting on Galy’s proprietary process for lab-grown cotton, Zhang says, “It’s hard to picture how this form of cotton production works.” For research purposes, Zhang and his team have been testing different methods of growing cotton in saline solutions. The researchers succeeded in growing cotton seeds on the surface of the water with special overhead lighting.
“Even on a small scale, it is a very tedious and time-consuming process. Growing cotton in the lab at an industrial scale is not realistic at this time. The cost will be at least 10 to 20 times higher than traditional cotton,” adds Zhang.
He further explains that it is possible to isolate up to 100 developing cotton embryos per day from the seed capsules of cotton plants. Those embryos can then transform into cotton fibers in a lab setting. However, it can take several weeks for the cotton fibers to grow to a suitable length. And they do not grow as long as they normally do in nature.
“Galy has their own trade secret, but they might be too optimistic at this time. I cannot imagine how they will produce affordable, lab-grown cotton within the next seven years at an industrial level,” adds Zhang.
Despite all the skepticism from the scientific community, Bueno asserts that they still believe their lab-grown cotton could be a game changer. “If we are always too skeptical, we will never change anything and keep doing the same things over and over,” says Bueno. “Cost parity is our main goal because we want to change conventional cotton cultivation practices.”
To date, Galy has managed to raise over $32 million in funding from investors like venture capitalist John Doerr, Sam Altman (CEO of Open AI), Tony Fadell (former vice president of the iPod division at Apple Inc), and others. In the future, Galy plans on growing other crops with their proprietary process and aims to build five factories across five continents with 200,000 tons of production capacity annually.
“We are not against traditional agriculture, which has been feeding and dressing us for thousands of years. But we believe that cellular agriculture can help in achieving environmental sustainability,” he adds.