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Fermentation route for the dye of emperors

Approximately 10,000 sea snails were previously required to make a single gram.

9th January 2023

Innovation in Textiles
 |  Bedford, MA, USA

Clothing/​Footwear, Sustainable

Conagen, based in Bedford, Massachusetts, has successfully scaled up the production of its sustainable, cost-effective Tyrian purple – a historically coveted and expensive dye found in rare and limited sources in marine nature.

Conagen is the world’s first and only biotechnology company commercialising a sustainable Tyrian purple by fermentation. As with any biologically-sourced textile dye, this colour-fast compound reduces pollution and carbon footprint when used as an alternative to petrochemically synthesized dyes commonly used in the textiles industry today.

Also known as Phoenician purple, royal purple, imperial purple, or imperial dye, Tyrian dates back several millennia to the bronze age when the Phoenicians from Tyre on the Levantine coast produced it for the ancient Greeks, Persians, Byzantines and Romans to clad emperors and kings with luxury textiles. Tyrian purple was once worth more than its weight in gold for its prized deep rich purple. During the Roman Empire, one pound of Tyrian purple dye was priced at approximately three Troy pounds of gold – roughly $66,000 in today’s currency.

Tyrian purple dye for textiles. © Conagen

Current producers extract and harvest Tyrian purple from the murex shellfish in much the same way as the ancient Phoenicians. Approximately 10,000 of these predatory sea snails (54 kilograms)  are required to make a single gram of the dye, making it impracticable, expensive and environmentally unfriendly. Ancient dye producers all but drove the murex species to extinction along the coasts of Phoenicia – evident in the vast deposits of the shells excavated on the outskirts of Sidon, Tyre, and across the Mediterranean.

“Conagen is democratising the exclusive use of a colour once reserved for royalty and now obtainable on a global scale,” said Casey Lippmeier, senior vice president of innovation at Conagen. “Our fermentation and bioconversion technologies enable us to offer true-to-nature products. By leveraging our bioengineering and commercial manufacturing capabilities, we’re unlocking Tyrian purple’s great potential as an accessible and sustainable dye.”

The Tyrian purple technology is based on two of Conagen’s many key bioengineering platforms which enable accelerated product development timelines for its competitive phenolics, terpenoids, proteins and peptide molecules.

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