Living microorganisms have recently been looked upon as a possible tool for solving a number of technological, environmental, and medical challenges. Bacteria that consumes crude oil, for example, may be an efficient tool for cleaning up oil spills, while in medicine bacteria may play a large role in biologic drug manufacturing.
Now, a somewhat unexpected application of live bacteria comes courtesy of researchers at MIT. They have developed a technique for producing bacteria-powered clothing that features vents that open and close depending on the surrounding moisture content. While it may seem like a mad scientist’s attempt to complicate something that should be simple, in reality the approach may turn out to be more practical for producing smart, responsive clothing than integrating sensors and other electronics into lightweight fabric.
The researches took inspiration from objects in nature that change their shape along with changes in humidity. Pine cones, for example, open up through a process of individual scales bending when humidity rises. The researchers took on the challenge of replicating this process by utilizing mostly nonpathogenic E. coli, a bacteria already well represented in our gut microbiomes, to power fabric flaps built into a tshirt and a shoe’s insole.
Conveniently, E. coli responds to changing humidity levels by puffing up and shrinking, depending on the direction of the change. The bacteria was cultured and embedded in parallel lines between layers of natural latex . Once ready, the researchers alternately applied dry and humid air to the fabric, which responded by repeatedly curling and extending itself. This was done 100 times in a row, and even after such a workout the bacteria continued to power the active fabric just as well as when it started.
The team applied this technology to a shirt that had a bunch of flaps built into the back, as well as a shoe insole that does the same. The following video demonstrates the new bioactive material and gives a tiny bit of insight into its creation:
Study in journal Science Advances: Harnessing the hygroscopic and biofluorescent behaviors of genetically tractable microbial cells to design biohybrid wearables…
Top image: The left photo was taken before exercise when ventilation flaps are flat; after exercise, the ventilation flaps have curved. Credit: Hannah Cohen