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This Shape-Shifting Clothing Is Alive–And Powered By Bacteria

What if your workout gear could breathe as you sweat?

The clothing of the future might be grown in the lab, not sewn in a factory.

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A new set of clothes from MIT Media Lab’s Tangible Media Group started life in a flask. By printing bacteria into fabric, it’s possible to make clothes that are partially alive–and that can respond to the outside world. It’s smart clothing, but without any electronics.

In a prototype called Second Skin, researchers made bacteria-powered athletic wear that naturally opens and closes tiny flaps to help you cool off while you’re running or doing yoga.

“Human skin naturally sweats to get rid of the excessive heat and cool down the whole body, however, traditional clothes prevent this process from happening” says Lining Yao, a PhD candidate who worked on the design with a team of researchers. “In bioLogic, our ‘Second Skin’ reacts to sweat and facilitates this physiological process.”

In the lab, the researchers had accidentally discovered that Bacillus subtilus–a bacteria best known as an ingredient in the Japanese fermented food natto–naturally transforms, swelling and shrinking depending on humidity.

The new material uses the bacteria in a three-layer film, with “natto” cells on both the inside and the outside. The flaps sliced into the material are arranged based on maps of human body heat and sweat, so they open exactly where someone could most use a cool breeze during a workout.

“When the skin is dry, natto cells on both the inner and outer layes are equal in size and the flaps are kept flat,” says Yao. “When the skin heats up and sweats, the natto cells in the inner layer will expand and push the flaps to bend outwards.”

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By growing smart clothing–instead of manufacturing electronics to make it work–the design saves resources, and it’s wildly efficient. “It is economical, sustainable and environmental friendly,” she says. “In a factory, motors have to be produced one by one. However, in a bio-lab, one cell can grow into 10 billion cells over night; or, one nano-actuator can self-duplicate into billions over night, just with a little bit nutrition.”

The same bacteria could be used in other ways to play with humidity or heat, like a lamp shade that transforms when a lightbulb turns on or a tea leaf that is activated by steam. But other bacteria will have other applications.

“We’re excited about utilizing the unique behavior of living material for design,” says Yao. “Unlike engineered artifacts, living matter can duplicate, evolve, and die. For example, would it be lovely if your daughter’s favorite shoes can grow bigger as she is growing older?”

Ultimately, bacteria can also be manipulated to perform different tasks. “Bacteria are just actuators; they are programmable machines with genetic coding,” she says. “How can we make our bacteria change shape as well as change color, smell or illumination?”

Future bacteria-powered flowers might sense air pollution, blooming and wilting to give a visual air quality report as people walk by.

“Transformation, especially programmable transformation in living materials, has great potential,” says Yao.

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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