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Huue Partners with Ginkgo Bioworks to Scale Bacteria-Based Indigo Dye

Scientists are harnessing the power of biology to scale a sustainable indigo dye concept. Huue–formerly known as Tinctorium—made headlines when it debuted indigo derived from lab-grown bacteria. And now, it’s making waves again with a strategic partnership to drive its concept forward.

The company partnered with Ginkgo Bioworks, Inc. to use its cell programming platform to ramp up and scale production of the sustainable indigo dye.

“Our partnership with Ginkgo will help us accelerate the production of our dyes to meet customer demand,” Michelle Zhu, Huue’s CEO and co-founder, told Rivet. “Specifically, we can accelerate production by leveraging Ginkgo’s microbial engineering platform and its strain optimization capabilities. The higher the productivity levels, the greater the acceleration, and the greater the wins for both partners.”

Huue partnered with Ginkgo Bioworks, Inc. to use its cell programming platform for accelerating production of its sustainable indigo dye.
Michelle Zhu, Huue Courtesy

Sustainable dye alternatives are an increasing focus for the denim industry, as the company reported that indigo manufacturing produces more than 1.4 million metric tons of CO2 and utilizes toxic chemicals like benzene, formaldehyde, and sodamide, which can be dangerous to the environment and surrounding communities. Though indigo dye is naturally derived from the indigo plant, most of today’s indigo pigment is chemically synthesized and must undergo a chemical reaction that pumps harmful corrosive salt into the world’s waterways.

Additional strides in synthetic biology have pointed to bacteria as a promising solution. Dutch fashion project Living Colour developed a method that involves feeding bacteria a nutrient that enables them to produce an indigo dye. The company’s founders also studied the efficacy of using sound waves on bacteria to create patterned textiles.

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Huue joined the Fashion For Good Accelerator Program in March 2020 to turn its vision into a reality. But while the innovation had the potential to change the industry for the better, the startup found scaling to be a challenge.

“Like many in synthetic biology, it’s a question of timing and scaling so these lab-based developments can be brought to market,” Zhu said. “That’s why this partnership with Ginkgo is so significant.”

Ginkgo’s cell programming platform is used by companies across a variety of industries as a way to develop environmentally friendlier was to create products like food ingredients, fragrances, cosmetics and more. As a result of the partnership, Huue expects to accelerate the production of its dyes for its first partners in 2021 and 2022.

“We’re fortunate to be working in stealth on pilot programs and running fabric tests with household denim brands that everyone knows and loves,” Zhu said. “Our partners determine when Huue-powered denim arrives at stores and online, and these are timelines we’re working through now.”