77: Bacterial colour pigmentation


It is estimated that a single textile mill can use 200 tons (181 tonnes) of fresh water per ton of dyed fabric. Not only does this consume water, but the chemicals pollute the water causing both environmental damage and diseases throughout developing communities.


Microbe-based textile dyes.

Following eight years of research at the Department of Biochemical Engineering at University College London, synthetic biologists John Ward and Natsai Audrey Chieza developed a microbe Streptomyces coelicolor can produce a particular pigment that might be used to dye textiles a blue hue, using 500 times less water and not requiring chemicals to fix the dye.

The microbe naturally changes color based on the pH of the medium it grows inside, so by tweaking that environment, it becomes possible to create navy blue, for example, or bright pink. With synthetic biology, it will be possible to program the organism to sustainably produce an even fuller range of colors (

Bacterial pigment is biodegradable, but designers still plan to avoid dumping it into water. Laura Luchtman and Ilfa Siebenhaar, who run a Netherlands-based lab, called Living Colour are looking to create a closed-loop process where there is no effluent that ends up in waterways.

Living Colour focuses only on strains of bacteria that naturally produce pigment. Rather than genetic engineering, the designers are interested in how working with living organisms can create a new aesthetic of colour. Leftover pigment could also be used for products that require less saturated pigments than textiles. (

To promote the innovation, Natsai Audrey Chieza’s London startup Faber Futures has exhibited at prestigious institutions including at the Pompidou Centre, Vitra Design Museum and the Science Gallery, Dublin, and sits in permanent collections including at the Forbes Pigment Collection at Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

What you can do: Buy Living Colour clothes to wear and to explain to people.

Discover Solution 78: human-based compost

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