New Antibiotic Dye May Help Prevent Infectious Diseases


On March 8, 2016, researchers at the Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology reported the development of an antibacterial fabric that inhibits the growth of bacteria, including antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

On March 8, 2016, researchers at the Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology (UNIST) reported the development of an antibacterial fabric that inhibits the growth of bacteria, including antibiotic-resistant bacteria.1

The antibacterial fabric developed by the collaborative group uses an antibiotic pigment known as violacein, first described by Herman C. Lipstein and colleagues in a 1945 study. In this early research, violacein was extracted from a strain of bacteria known as Chromobacteria violacea. Researchers noted the inhibitory activity of this compound against the growth of Staphylococcus aureus and Staphylococcus albus. Violacein is known to have activity not only against bacteria of the Staphylococcus genus, but also against other gram-positive bacteria.2

Violacein is produced by species of Chromobacteria and several other types of bacteria, including Collimonas, Duganella, Janthinobacterium, Microbulbifer, and Pseudoalteromonas species. As with other antibiotics discovered in nature, violacein has a role in the natural environment. In reptiles, such as frogs and salamanders, violacein produced by Janthinobacteria biofilms on the skin has both antifungal and antibacterial properties.2,3

Early studies show that violacein may promote apoptotic cell death through caspase-3-mediated activity, however, more research is required to fully understand the mechanism of violacein. Scientists plan to conduct further studies in C. elegans and higher organisms to elucidate the mechanism of action.3

One important limitation in the development of violacein is poor yields in current manufacture techniques. Future manufacture methods, however, will likely take advantage of genetic engineering and synthetic biology techniques. For example: as with other biologically derived medications, researchers could potentially manufacture violacein using genetically engineered bacteria grown in bioreactors.1

Through this collaboration between industry and academic groups, including Yeejoo Company Limited, UNIST, and the Korea Institute of Ceramic Engineering and Technology (KICET), researchers hope to develop violacein for large-scale use as a cotton fabric dye to block the growth of strains of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and other drug-resistant gram-positive bacteria. Early studies indicate 99.9% antibacterial activity in fabric samples impregnated with the antibiotic compound.1,4

An estimated 700,000 patients die of infections caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria each year, and this project may help curb the growing incidence of antibiotic-resistant infections.1 According to research team leader, Professor Robert J. Mitchell, "This is the first case where an antibacterial fabric was produced using violacein. This fabric has the possibility to reduce the impact of super bacterial infections."1

Fabrics impregnated with violacein would add to existing approaches for control and prevention of infection through antibiotic-coated medical equipment. Many modern hospitals have installed antibacterial surfaces in bathrooms and patient care areas to help prevent the spread of infection. Other interventions include antibiotic-coated catheters for patients requiring central lines, and use of hand washes with persistent antimicrobial activity, such as chlorhexidine.

With the ever-present threat of resistant superbugs, new interventions for prevention of antibiotic-resistant infections are necessary. Novel approaches, such as antimicrobial dyes in fabrics, may help in the effort to prevent infections and reduce the burden of infectious disease.


1. Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology (UNIST). Anti-bacterial fabric holds promise for fighting superbug. ScienceDaily. Accessed March 2016.

2. Lichstein HC, Van De Sand VF. Violacein, an Antibiotic Pigment Produced by Chromobacterium violaceum . The Journal of Infectious Diseases. 1945;76(1):47-51.

3. Choi SY, Yoon KH, Lee JI, Mitchell RJ. Violacein: Properties and Production of a Versatile Bacterial Pigment. Biomed Res Int. 2015;2015:465056.

4. Choi SY, Kim S, Lyuck S, Kim SB, Mitchell RJ. High-level production of violacein by the newly isolated Duganella violaceinigra str. NI28 and its impact on Staphylococcus aureus. Sci Rep. 2015;5:15598.

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