LOGAN – From drinks to blue jeans, a Utah State University researcher may have just changed the way many everyday products are made. Associate professor of biological engineering Jixun Zhan recently secured a patent for a new method of producing a natural blue dye known as indigoidine.
Zhan said natural blue dye is already available, but synthetic dye is cheaper, which means it is more commonly used in products even though it poses greater health risks.
“Unfortunately most companies are using chemically synthesized dyes,” he said. “We don’t know what kind of health problems they cause because basically they are created by chemists, the synthetic dyes. It may cause health problems. Now more and more people understand the concerns, they tend to use natural stuff.”
Zhan said for about three years his lab’s objective was to develop a process that can efficiently not just produce the natural dye, but purify it as well. It was accomplished using the bacteria E. coli. Zhan said the gene that synthesizes the dye was originally found in a different type of bacteria, but it yielded so little of the color it wasn’t even visible. Zhan was able to clone the gene then put it into the E. coli bacteria, which rapidly created more and more copies of the gene in the same cell. The result was a much higher yield.
The natural dye isn’t just safer than the synthetic stuff, it may provide health benefits if used in food or drink. Zhan said it contains essential amino acids and antioxidants. He said some may be concerned about using E. coli bacteria to produce the dye, but said both the strain of E. coli and the purification method are very safe.
“I want to emphasize that this is a very safe stream to produce and a very common method in the industry for genetic engineering,” he said.