Danforth Science Center researches indigo plant genes to make denim jeans more eco-friendly | St. Louis Public Radio

Danforth Science Center researches indigo plant genes to make denim jeans more eco-friendly

Sep 22, 2016

A collaboration between the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center and a textile dyes company could soon produce more eco-friendly denim clothing for consumers. 

Sarah Bellos, CEO of Stony Creek Colors, presents at the 2015 Ag Innovation Showcase
Credit Provided by Donald Danforth Plant Science Center

Tennessee-based Stony Creek Colors, a company devoted to creating plant-based dyes, is working with the bioinformatics facility at the Danforth Science Center to develop a high-yielding seed to generate a sustainable feedstock of indigo crops. The project aims to produce 26,000 acres of indigo crops by 2021 to meet market demand and become cost-competitive with synthetic indigo dye products. Their effort was recently funded by a one-year $224,676 grant from the National Science Foundation.  

"Ultimately, the goal is to have farmers growing indigo seeds that we would not have been able to develop without this improved understanding of the genetics," said Sarah Bellos, CEO of Stony Creek Colors. 

Before the industrial revolution, denim was dyed using indigo plants, but the synthetic version proved to be easier to manipulate and supplies are not influenced by the growing season or changes in the environment. Almost all denim products are dyed with synthetic indigo, which is produced with petroleum-derived chemicals, such as benzene and formaldehyde. 

Stony Creek Colors has developed technology to extract dye from indigo plants, but found difficulty in producing consistent yields across locations and growing seasons. Plant scientists at Danforth could solve this challenge. 

"What we can do to help them is develop their genetic resources and their ability to screen for higher producing indigo plants or varieties," said Noah Fahlgren, head of Danforth's bioinformatics facility. 

Fahlgren will sequence the genome of a high-yielding indigo plant called Persicaria tinctoria, known as 

Persicaria tinctorial, Japanese Indigo
Credit Provided by Donald Danforth Plant Science Center

Japanese Indigo, to better understand its genetics. He will also work on a low-cost device that can help assess how much dye a field of indigo crops can produce. Normally, indigo dye production would be determined after harvesting. A "phenotyping device" would provide a less destructive way of doing so. 

Bellos believes it's important for denim manufacturers to consider using dye that has a lower impact on the environment. 

"Not only are we replacing these petroleum derived chemicals, which are harmful, but we're actually replacing that with a plant that can be a part of a sustainable agriculture system," she said. 

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