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Fermented Foods Part 5b: The Many Uses of Kombucha Scoby Cellulose


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Dec 14, 2023
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Wood, cotton, paper, and kombucha scobys. What do these have in common? They all contain cellulose. And cellulose is extremely useful for cosmetic, biomedical, and technological applications. The cellulose that comes from plants is different from that from kombucha scobys because it is not as pure. Cellulose from kombucha scobys, on the other hand, is ultrapure. So, researchers are trying to find ways to alter the scoby cellulose to make it even more useful.

If you landed here first, welcome to Part 5 of the Fermented Foods Series, which focuses on interesting takes on fermented foods and has been split into two subparts. In Part 5a, I shared the story of a fermented food company that wants to reduce food waste. If you haven’t read it, go back and check it out. Here in Part 5b, I’m telling you about a research lab that is engineering kombucha scobys to make cellulose for use in materials for many different applications.

Below is an outline of Part 5:​

  • Part 5a: A Fermented Foods Company Fighting Food Waste
    • How did the owners of The Crafty Pickle Co get interested in fermented foods?
    • What triggered the idea to start The Crafty Pickle Co?
    • What is the purpose of The Crafty Pickle Co?
  • Part 5b: The Many Uses of Kombucha Scoby Cellulose
    • What is a kombucha scoby?
    • How are kombucha scobys being used to create materials?
    • Why are they using kombucha scobys?
    • How do they functionalize the scoby cellulose?

So, let’s get started with Part 5b of the Fermented Foods Series!

What is a kombucha scoby?​

Fermented Foods Part 5b: The Many Uses of Kombucha Scoby Cellulose | Joyful Microbe

A batch of my own kombucha with the scoby floating on top. Photo by Justine Dees.

This post contains affiliate links — see my disclosure policy.

That weird-looking glob of stuff floating on the top of kombucha is called a scoby, a Symbiotic Culture (Community) Of Bacteria and Yeast. You wouldn’t see a mature scoby in a store-bought bottle of kombucha, but you may see small scobys that have just begun to form. The large scobys I’m talking about would be in someone’s home-brewed kombucha. (You can purchase a scoby from Amazon if you want to get started with kombucha homebrewing. Here is the scoby I bought and have been using for the past few months with success.)

The kombucha scoby is mostly cellulose, a polysaccharide, and is the reason why scobys stick together so well. If you’ve never felt a scoby before, they are surprisingly thick and strong. It takes more effort than you would think to tear a piece off.

How are kombucha scobys being used to create materials?​

Dr. Vivianne Goosens is a Research Associate in Dr. Tom Ellis’s research lab. They are taking advantage of the fact that the scoby produces so much cellulose when it grows naturally. As synthetic biologists, they aim to genetically manipulate the bacteria in the scoby to produce functionalized cellulose that has interesting and useful characteristics (stronger, transparent, antibacterial, contain enzymes), which would have many applications.

Dr. Goosens works with kombucha tea daily for research purposes but says she doesn’t drink the stuff. “We don’t actually drink kombucha—we don’t make it for consumption. It’s really just a tool to make bacterial cellulose.” So, they care about the cellulose from kombucha more than the drink itself but for a great purpose. “Cellulose is something that, when you hear the word, you think plant cells, wood, hard material, cotton, soft material. Cellulose innately has this ability to, depending on how it’s processed, result in very different material properties. So it can be crazy hard, or it can be part of a blouse that breathes nicely,” says Dr. Goosens.

Fermented Foods Part 5b: The Many Uses of Kombucha Scoby Cellulose | Joyful Microbe

Kombucha that Dr. Goosens works with. The Scoby is the white part on top. Photo by Dr. Vivianne Goosens.

The applications for cellulose abound. It has uses in things like “wound healing, tissue scaffolding, artificial blood vessels, bioplastics, high-end headphones, sound instruments, high definition TVs, and cell phones,” says Dr. Goosens. “Siemens is very interested in cellulose in their power sources, and it has massive implications. It’s the same material that makes wood and cotton t-shirts, and yet it can also make artificial blood vessels.”

Why are they using kombucha scobys?​

The problem with cellulose made by plants is that it contains lectins and pectins, whereas bacterial cellulose is ultrapure, Dr. Goosens tells me. The scoby is 99% cellulose and is very thick.

What they are doing is looking at the relationship between the yeast and bacteria in the scoby and trying to alter them genetically to get them to make functionalized cellulose. Imagine it. You could have a biofactory that makes massive amounts of ultrapure cellulose with unique material properties. That would be very useful in light of all of the potential applications.

How do they functionalize the scoby cellulose?​

The bacteria in the scoby are the cellulose producers. And Dr. Goosens says they can functionalize the cellulose the bacteria produce and give it new material properties in two ways: 1) by altering the bacteria and 2) by altering the yeast to tell the bacteria to make it a certain way. “So, it’s a lot of symbiotic co-culturing. I suppose there is fermentation going on, but it’s not sauerkraut. It’s kind of SciFi sauerkraut,” says Dr. Goosens.

Fermented Foods Part 5b: The Many Uses of Kombucha Scoby Cellulose | Joyful Microbe

A kombucha scoby that Dr. Goosens works with. Photo by Dr. Vivianne Goosens.

To give you a more detailed view of the microbes in kombucha, most of the yeast sits on the bottom, and the scoby is mostly cellulose and bacteria. “I envision it as a few bacteria and tons of cellulose. They produce the cellulose at an incredible rate. The yeast and the bacteria have this relationship where they really grow well together,” says Dr. Goosens. “The ramifications are really neat. It is the symbiotic relationship of the bacteria and the yeast that allow it to do these great things.”

So, as you can see, Dr. Goosens and the Ellis lab are making unique use of scobys. Now, you’ll never look at your kombucha the same again. At least I hope not! The possible applications of microbes never cease to amaze me.

Further Reading​

Here are a few resources Dr. Goosens recommends.

About the microbes that affect our lives in general:

About Dr. Goosen’s and the Ellis lab’s research:

Well, that wraps up the Fermented Foods Series. I hope you enjoyed it. If you learned something new, I’d love to hear about it. Please share either in the comments below or on Twitter by tagging me.

The post Fermented Foods Part 5b: The Many Uses of Kombucha Scoby Cellulose appeared first on Joyful Microbe.
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