Dyeing textiles naturally when enabled by nanotechnology

The May 15, 2012 news item on Nanowerk is intriguing,

Nanoparticles from a fungus could lead to new eco friendly dyes claim scientists from the Catholic University of Louvain.

Researchers working for the EU-funded research project SOPHIED have discovered that a fungus from the Solomon Islands produces special enzymes that act as nano-bio-catalysts.  These components help to trigger a chemical reaction between two different basic ingredients and turn it into a dye.

On digging into the matter a little further I found a Sept. 2, 2011 article by Elena Ledda for YOURIS; European Research Media Center about the reasons for the work and about the researcher who’s  focusing on the fungus, Estelle Enaud at Catholic University  of Louvain in Belgium,

The problems encountered by the traditional European colour industry go from lack of innovation and weak market competitiveness to toxicity, environmental hazards and health risks for those working in it. Dye-making industry is based on chemistry and processes designed more than a century ago, some of which are very energy consuming and potentially dangerous for the workers. In order to prevent explosive reactions when mixing the chemicals, the process has to be cooled down to ice cold temperatures, which consumes a lot of energy. Besides, some dyes can be toxic and there is a risk that they may pass the skin through perspiration. …

To overcome this bias scientists of the EU-funded research project SOPHIED led by the Catholic University of Louvain, in Belgium, have extracted special proteins, called enzymes, from fungi. …

“We already knew there is a whole spectrum of colours in the fungis and that the enzymes can form new color compounds during the bioremediation part, that is the process through which the metabolisms of microorganism removes pollutants. What we didn’t know was if it was possible to make textile dyes because these have special properties and chemical functions that you cannot find in nature”, says Estelle Enaud of the Earth and Life Institute – Applied Microbiology at the Université Catholique de Louvain. Enaud was a post-doc researcher in Sophie Vanhulle’s team. Sophie Vanhulle, the project co-ordinator, died two years ago. “The challenge was if it was possible to use the enzyme on a substance that is not natural, and it turned out it was!”

Here’s an interview with Enaud discussing her project (from the YOURIS website),

My curiosity still not satisfied, I researched SOPHIED to find out it is a European Union-funded project (Framework Project 6) with the tagline, novel sustainable bioprocess for European colour industries.  Here’s a 2008 interview with Magalie Foret, another researcher on the project discussing he SOPHIED project and her specialty wetlands engineering  (in French), from the SOPHIED website,

Getting back to Enaud and her latest work (from the Ledda article),

To extract the enzymes the fungi are put into a liquid that contains nutrients, which allows them to grow and release the desired proteins. After taking out the fungi, silica particles are added to the fluid. “The combination of enzymes and silica particles brings to a stabilization of the enzyme and eliminates proteins at the end in our dye product, since they might provoke allergies”, Estelle Enaud points out. “The particle we used the most had a mean size of 100 µm, much bigger than nano. The nano size and the nano part of the project concern the enzymes that are nanocatalysts and can also be called biological nano tools”, she explains. “I must admit I do not really like to use the word nano because although everything I work with as a biochemist is nano, biochemistry is not a new science area”.

The new colorants possess chemical features that allow them to adhere directly to the fibers of polyamide, wool or silk, making it unnecessary to add extra chemicals that can pollute water and provoke allergies. “Before putting this product on the market, it would be important to check its toxicity”, Victor Puntes, responsible of the ‘Inorganic nanoparticles group’ at the ICN (Institut Català de Nanotecnologia) points out. “In principle, large silica particles are more toxic than their nano counterpart: on the one hand, being larger they have a hard time to enter into the cell, on the other, once a few of them have entered, they can produce chronic inflammation that can result, maybe 20 years later, in some kind of cancer”, Puntes explains. Enaud ensures that the silica particles that they use are not toxic. She adds that the particles are customarily used in tooth paste, as ingredient in horticulture, and in concrete are not classified as dangerous substances.

Some interesting possibilities here assuming toxicity and scaling issues are dealt with. One final thought, I wonder if there might be some sort of ‘property’ issues. Given that the fungus under discussion comes from the Solomon Islands, it seems possible that indigenous peoples might feel proprietary, especially if they’ve been making using of it themselves thereby piquing the scientists’ interest in the first place.

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