Textile dyes and pigments from bacteria, yeast and sugar

Is it time to usher in new biological materials?


With on-going concerns about resource intense textile manufacturing, perhaps it makes sense to look at other technologies, including using bacteria and fermentation to develop new molecules.

The recent report published by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation – New Textiles Economy sheds light on the mostly non-renewable resources adopted by the textile industry. The data is stark. 98 million tons of non-renewable resources are used every year. This includes oil to produce synthetic fibers, fertilizers to grow cotton, and chemicals to manufacture, dye, and finish textiles. Textiles production, including cotton farming, uses approximately
 93 billion cubic meters of water annually.

Many companies that manufacture dyes have made a dent in the resource issue by developing low impact dyes. These dyes use less water and energy in the dyeing process and have higher exhaustion rates. In addition, they do not contain heavy metals.

However, biotechnology can and is being used to create dyes from bacteria, sugar and yeast.

A red/purple pigment for silk

Materials designer Natsai Audrey Chieza gave a great Ted talk about how biology can reduce pollution in the fashion industry. She is conducting research on the bacteria Streptomyces coelicolor, which can create a colorfast pigment for protein fibers. Bacteria is broken down during fermentation to form the pigment. Her research shows that colonies of Streptomyces coelicolor can be grown directly on to silk creating beautiful designs, including graphic prints and uniform shades, with no additional chemicals and very little water. A photo of her work is included above.

Scaling the pigment is achieved in a bioreactor, which contains yeasts that have been engineered to produce the desired product, in this case the pigment. The correct conditions of temperature and food, in the form of sugar, are carefully monitored during the fermentation process.

Bio indigo for denim

Bio indigo is not new. Genencor, a biotech company that is now a subsidiary of DuPont, worked with a large denim brand over 20 years ago to develop and dye 400,000 yards of denim fabric with bio-indigo.

The reaction mechanism is interesting. The dye comes from the organism Escherichia coli, which converts sugar into a reddish amino acid called tryptophan. Genencor spliced a gene into the bacteria to create a substance called indoxl and that turns blue in air. Hence bio indigo was created.

The technology was never commercialized. Perhaps the timing was wrong. Perhaps the cost was prohibitive or perhaps the sugar source required too much land or water during its growth.

Given the continuing focus on the environmental impact of the textile industry, should we be spending more time and effort on biological solutions that could potential reduce our dependency on non renewable resources?

Impacts to your business?

Questions to consider:

  • Is your company assessing resource use?
  • Do you seek out more environmentally-conscious products?

For help with any issue associated with sustainability and chemicals, contact Amanda Cattermole at (415) 412 8406 or Amanda@cattermoleconsulting.com. We can help you develop powerful solutions to protect your company and brand reputation, which will result in safer products manufactured in cleaner supply chains.

Tips and Insights contains information to help you make informed chemical management decisions. Each post highlights a particular topic and includes questions you may want to consider for your business.

Posted on: Dec 04, 2017 in Innovation

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