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Pangaia, Colorifix Are Using DNA to Scale Up Natural Dyes

Textile dyeing is a dirty business. A pair of British startups is betting that a new, borrowed-from-nature technology will help the fashion industry clean up its act.

And not just in theory—Pangaia has tapped Colorifix’s “revolutionary” dyeing process to create a pair of tracksuits that applies color using Mother Nature’s own playbook. Available Tuesday, the capsule collection marks the first time that Colorifix’s lab-grown pigments will be available for purchase.

How Colorifix works is part art, mostly science. The Norwich-based firm uses DNA sequencing to identify the genetic code of any color found in nature, whether from a plant, animal, insect or bacterium. Those blueprints are “translated” into a microbe, which essentially acts as a tiny dye factory. The color is then “grown” on renewable feedstocks such as sugar, yeast, and plant by-products using a fermentation technique not unlike brewing beer. Dividing every 20 minutes, the microbes can generate a large quantity of dye liquor within a couple of days. Finally, the colorant is pumped into a standard dye machine, where it can be applied to synthetic and natural yarns and textiles without petrochemicals and only a fraction of the water and energy used in conventional processes.

“In simple terms, Colorifix takes all of the harsh chemistry required in conventional dyeing and replaces it with biology,” Orr Yarkoni, CEO and co-founder of Colorifix, told Sourcing Journal. “This change improves each stage of the dyeing process from an environmental perspective.”

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While natural dyes are generally less toxic than their synthetic counterparts, their lack of consistency, tendency to fade and intensive labor and agricultural demands have hampered their uptake by the mainstream. Employing synthetic biology, Yarkoni said, can bypass these obstacles while remaining within the price range of existing dyeing technologies.

“Our technology is cost-effective and compatible with current industrial infrastructure to minimize barriers to adoption while our semi-distributed business model cuts down on carbon emissions and encourages circular economies in textile manufacturing regions,” he added.

The use of genetically modified organisms—and the biotech waste they leave behind—hasn’t been without controversy. Colorifix insists it “uses a GM process to make a non-GM product,” an important distinction from commodities such as cotton or food, where the modified organism is the product.

“Our work with GMOs are Class 1 activities, considered by the European Commission to be of zero or negligible risk,” Yarkoni said. “We work with well-studied microorganisms that have been domesticated by scientists over the last century and do not possess key functions required to compete in the outside world. This means that even in a worst-case scenario—accidental or even malicious release—our GMOs pose negligible risk to human health or the natural environment.”

Colorifix also uses a validated “inactivation step” to eliminate all live microbes in the final stage of dyeing, resulting in a sterile product. Any waste is “rigorously tested” for Colorifix-engineered biomass to ensure it does not enter the environment, he added.

The Colorifix technology will be available through Pangaia’s impending B2B platform, where it plans to share its breakthrough discoveries with the wider industry. To kick off their partnership, the nettle denim maker opted for Colorifix’s pink and baby blue hues, one produced from silk and the other by ancient bacteria around geysers. They will grace a fleece hoodie ($170) and track pant ($100), which are derived from a 50/50 blend of recycled and organic cotton and treated with peppermint oil to stave off odor-causing bacteria.

“Pangaia is committed to using the most advanced technologies which work to augment natural processes and Colorifix’s cutting-edge approach manifests the true potential of biotechnology to bring positive change to the fashion industry,” said Amanda Parkes, chief innovation officer at Pangaia. “Harnessing the power of microorganisms to create natural dye is only the beginning of how biofabrication can fundamentally transform manufacturing.”

More colors are forthcoming—while it’s “relatively simple” to engineer a microbe to produce a pigment, the challenge is scaling the color so that it competes with a synthetic dye in terms of cost and performance, Yarkoni said.

“Our color cards for each material are coming along nicely but we are only releasing products when we are 100 percent about their reproducibility so that every batch comes out the same,” he added. “Because we dye so many different materials, this means a lot of testing until we are sure our customer will be happy with the product. Despite the challenges, we have a phenomenal, interdisciplinary team working to grow our color library every day.”