Along the horizon of rising stars in the textile industry appears Colorifix, a textile dye company with synthetic biology roots. The company was started in 2015 by Dr. James Warren Ajioka, Dr. David Nugent and Dr. Orr Yarkoni. Colorifix recently stepped out of the lab and into the limelight when they won the “Breaking New Ground” award and second place at the Bio-start competition in July.
Using engineered organisms to produce pigments, the Colorifix team discovered a way to produce and fix dye onto fabrics without the use of heavy metals, organic solvents or acids. The breakthrough technology comes at a time when the textile industry desperately needs a process overhaul in order to meet the rising number of regulations imposed upon them by international environmental agencies.
How Colorifix Found Its Niche
CEO Orr Yarkoni explained how the team’s work with arsenic biosensors in southeast Asia gave them firsthand insight into the terrible water pollution problems caused by textile industry processes. “We began playing with stains,” he says, “and soon discovered a way to engineer organisms to not only produce pigments but to fix the pigments onto fabric.” The Colorifix team knew they had struck gold when “veterans of the textile dye industry saw [our results] and could not believe it.”
Colorifix’s technology tackles one of the most elusive but deleterious causes of pollution internationally: textile dyeing. The textile industry, and specifically its standard process for dyeing clothing, is one of the greatest water polluters in the world, deemed by some to be second only to oil pollution. While the effect of textile dye pollution may not look as dramatic as an oil spill, consider this: just three of India’s cities considered to be the country’s “dyeing hubs” make up 17-20% of the world’s water pollution, and that number doesn’t even make up half of the product volume that would include other international hubs like China, US and Pakistan.
The Negative Effects of Dye Pollution
What does dye pollution mean for the average Joe anyway? For starters, it means hazardous drinking water for millions of people in industry hubs. Almost a trillion gallons of fresh water used for textile dyeing this year are treated with harmful chemicals such as nonyphenol ethoxylates (NPEs). NPEs, known hormone-disrupting chemicals, are not only damaging to the local environment and population, but can remain on clothes after several washes.
In 2015, the EU banned use of NPEs, but the US has only suggested alternatives and imposes no regulations on the use or import of products containing NPEs. Meanwhile, fast-fashion and other major textile industry sectors in international hubs like China, India, Pakistan and the US are under a massive amount of rising environmental regulatory pressures. Countless textile mills along waterways in India have already been shut down, which supplements the ongoing environmental impact with rising economic issues. Yarkoni cited one company that called upon Colorifix when they received notice that they had to discontinue production of all red garments due to regulatory standards shortcomings. The supply-demand mechanics of the clothing industry will not yield until a better solution comes along. A change must come about soon; in 2016, the global fashion industry was valued at $3 trillion.
The Colorifix Solution
How is Colorifix ameliorating the situation and how can they save the industry? The team’s biologically-modified organism circumvents the use of harmful chemicals (including NPEs) and heavy metals that are usually crucial to the dyeing process. All aspects of Colorifix’s dye production cycle are sustainable, as well as cost, energy and time efficient. The specially-engineered organisms are grown at room temperature with agricultural by-products. Specifically, the organism grows on sugar molasses that are usually discarded as a waste product from sugar production companies, along with transfer reagents generated as waste from the biodiesel industry. When the organisms are combined with fabric, the transfer reagents elongate the dye-producing organisms to ensure maximum surface area for contact.
Unlike standard practices, which rely on high temperatures, Colorifix’s process exposes the organism to one brief high temperature cycle only in the final step, to burst the organisms and fix the dye onto the fabric. The organisms are then washed out of the fabric in a single cycle. The process is not only void of chemicals, but only takes 2 hours and is effective in dyeing both synthetic and natural fabrics indiscriminately. Additionally, whereas usual dyeing processes require a water-fabric ratio of 30-50:1, Colorifix’s system minimizes water usage to 3:1. The production cycle has a cost of less than or equal to that of current industry practices.
The data and statistics show exciting promise for change in the near future, but is this massive industry ready for such a widescale shift in production? According to Colorifix, “yes”. “The textile industry was one of the earliest adopters of GM,” explains Yarkoni as he cites the replacement of puma stones with enzyme cellulase in production of fashionably faded and worn jeans. Furthermore, Colorifix’s system requires little necessary changes in existing dye factory set-up except the addition of fermentation equipment, and uses Class I GMOs that already meet the safety requirements of current dye facilities.
Colorifix is clearly well on its way to “reinventing the color wheel” and the team is excited to share more of their latest updates when Dr. Yarkoni speaks at the San Francisco SynBioBeta Conference on October 3rd-5th.
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