Pigment-making microbes could replace dirty synthetic dyes

WHAT puts the colour in your clothes? At present, the answer is usually petrochemical dyes. Now a French start-up called Pili is offering a radically different approach: getting bacteria to make dyes in the lab, with sugars as the only raw material.

Thomas Landrain and his co-founders at Pili hatched the idea three years ago at a biohacking lab in Paris called La Paillasse. They wanted to build a pen powered by bacteria: feed in sugar, get back ink. Their first lead was a South American strain of Streptomyces bacteria which produces blue pigment. Landrain and his colleagues learned to extract the pigment and write with it.

The group tried the bio-ink in an inkjet printer, and explored what it would take to use it with textiles. By fiddling with the microbes’ environment – feeding them different kinds of sugars, varying the temperature and the time – the team learned to control the ink production and even to coax Streptomyces and other bacteria into producing four other colours: red, yellow, orange and violet.

“We started to wonder if such a way of producing colours could become a true alternative for already existing petrochemical dyes,” says Landrain.

Many inks are made from a mixture of petrochemicals and organic pigments; others involve compounds of heavy metals such as cadmium or lead. The black ink in a ballpoint pen, for example, gets its colour from carbon black, made by burning petroleum products. “We began to imagine a future without that industry,” says Landrain, one in which dye-making has no dependence on oil.

Harold …

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