NDSU students bioengineer environmentally safe textile dye

The students used advanced laboratory techniques to enable a protein from bacteria to produce a dye that binds with cotton, useful for coloring textiles in an environmentally friendly process.

A woman in a lab coat uses a dropper.
Taylor Pennington, a member of a team of students at North Dakota State University, inoculates a growth media with a novel bacteria the team developed to produce an environmentally safe textile dye. The team won a gold medal in the international iGEM Foundation Grand Jamboree competition.
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FARGO — There’s an often-overlooked problem associated with making brightly colored clothing: the dyes contain toxins and cancer-causing chemicals that pollute the environment.

Coming up with a safer alternative, however, poses major technological challenges.

A team of science students at North Dakota State University set out to solve the problem by creating an environmentally safe textile dye — and in the process earned a gold medal in an international collegiate genetic engineering competition.

The NDSU students entered their project in iGEM Foundation’s Grand Jamboree international competition, where their entry won a gold medal, the highest tier of recognition, in biomanufacturing.

“They did fantastic,” said Barney Geddes, an assistant professor of microbiology at NDSU and the team’s faculty adviser. “The teams are really encouraged to address real-world problems. It was a self-directed project.”


The award placed the NDSU team higher than submissions by Harvard, Stanford, MIT, Yale, the U.S. Air Force Academy and Michigan State University, among others.

To make their dye, the team bioengineered a protein produced in bacteria, which they bound with cellulose, allowing cotton to better retain the pigment.

The search for a more environmentally friendly textile dye hasn’t received much attention from the industry, said Wyatt Warkenthien, a member of the team and of NDSU Genetic Engineering Corps, the student group that entered the competition.

“There’s not a ton of work being done,” he said. In coming up with the idea to bioengineer an alternative, “We were just thinking of problems we saw in our community. We were really considering everything from agriculture to medicine.”

Last year’s team in the competition used bioengineering to reduce a pathogen that attacks soybeans.

The team of students launched their quest for a bioengineered textile dye with planning that started in February, with lab work from June through September — a period that was filled with numerous failures as the team worked toward a solution by a painstaking process.

The team tried 50 configurations before finding a couple that worked, Warkenthien said.

“It was a lot of trial and error,” he said. “It was frustrating, but it paid off in the end. We learned a lot.”


The project entailed a lot of sophisticated laboratory techniques, including cloning, gene sequencing and polymerase chain reaction.

Jake Schumacher prepares a plasmid cloning reaction that a team of students at North Dakota State University used to develop an environmentally friendly textile dye, which won a gold medal in the international iGEM Foundation's Grand Jamboree competition.

“They worked really hard,” Geddes said. “It’s always nice when you see that pay off.”

Several local companies sponsored the project, including Agathos, Genovac and Integra, contributing materials used in the research. Besides microbiology students, the team included members from multiple disciplines, including one majoring in psychology and neuroscience and others who helped with the project’s website.

The dye product, which the team calls Dyenamix , is still in the early stages of research.

“We’re either going to continue this project or start another one” for next year’s contest, with a decision expected in the next couple of months, Warkenthien said.

To take the dye project further likely would involve finding an entrepreneurial partner, something that has evolved from earlier projects in the iGEM competition, including an MIT team that yielded a company called Ginkgo Bioworks, a leading biotechnology firm.

“Who knows what the students decide to do,” Geddes said, adding that some students might decide to take an entrepreneurial path in their careers.

“The first step is to foster interest,” he said.


The team is hoping to recruit more student members from a wide range of disciplines for next year’s competition.

“Many hands make light work,” Warkenthien said.

Other student participants included leaders Drew Jordahl, Sierra Preabt and Mia Haugan and members Caroline Osborne, Deanna Milner, Jake Schumacher, Miranda Vanderhyde and Taylor Pennington.

“I’m really floored by how great an experience for students it is,” Geddes said of the iGEM competition. “It’s an invaluable experience.”

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