UC Berkeley bioengineering team is working to make blue jeans greener

Claire Liu/Staff

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A team of energy bioscience researchers at UC Berkeley’s Dueber Lab has found a way to make the production of blue jeans greener and more eco-friendly.

After two years of research, bioengineering professor John Dueber and a group of graduate students have developed a way to make the production of indigo — the dye used in blue jeans — more environmentally safe. The research involves genetically modifying bacteria such as E. coli and yeast to make indican, the molecule that ultimately produces indigo.

Currently, indigo is synthetically created through a chemical process involving petroleum. The chemicals involved in its production, however, are harmful to the environment and sea life. The process of using bacteria to produce indican eliminates the need for these dangerous chemicals, as it essentially mirrors the original process by which plants make indigo, but at a faster rate.

“There was this breakthrough moment when we were thinking about how clothing used to be dyed. You can get indican from plants, and historically they ground up the plants and turned the indican into indigo,” said bioengineering graduate student Zach Russ. “If we went back to the biological process, this would remove the need for dangerous chemicals.”

One of the dangerous chemicals involved in the current production of indigo is the reducing agent, which can react with water and spontaneously catch on fire, Russ said.

When the team started working with indigo in 2013, it was competing in iGEM, a summer competition. After the competition, the team came up with the idea to create a “greener” way to make blue jeans and, a year later, received a five-year grant with the Bakar Fellows Program to pursue the idea.

The team’s research has broken ground, but it will continue to fine-tune indigo production. Dueber said one of the main things they will need to focus on during the next four years is making the indigo in a cost-effective manner so that companies will be more willing to use their methods.

“How much of a market there is will determine how easy it will be to push this research all the way to the end,” Dueber said.

Despite these challenges, Dueber remains optimistic that his team’s research will alleviate the negative environmental impacts of current production methods.

“I do have high hopes for how this will change jean production,” Dueber said. “But there are certainly challenges ahead that we need to conquer.”

Contact Whitney Brymwitt at [email protected].