Bacteria gets a bad rep.
After all, without the microorganisms we couldn’t make earthy cheeses, create new types of fuel or even digest food (which is one reason we gulp down certain yogurts, which are crawling with probiotics or “good” bacteria). But thanks to a few bad cells, many people recoil in disgust merely at the word “bacteria.”
Luckily, MIT’s researchers aren’t among them. By adding bacteria to workout clothes in a project dubbed bioLogic, they created a “breathable workout suit with ventilating flaps that open and close in response to an athlete’s body heat and sweat,” according to an MIT news release.
Details about both the shoes and the workout clothes were recently published in the journal Science Advances. Whether these prototypes ever reach the consumer and if so when remains to be seen.
The bioLogic shirt is studded with small semi-circular flaps down its back, which resemble the scales of the monsters from the “Alien” franchise.
They work much like winter wear that comes with zippers under the armpits that open to release pent-up heat when it becomes unbearably warm. There’s one key difference, though: These don’t need to be opened manually.
Instead, the latex flaps pop open automatically just as the wearer begins to sweat.
To make this happen, the researchers coated either side of the flaps in non-pathogenic E. coli, which is known to alter its structure in the face of moisture — growing as it absorbs water and flattening out when it was dried. (Bacteria aren’t the only living organisms to do so; pine cones operate in much the same way.)
“These cells are so strong that they can induce bending of the substrate they are coated on,” the study’s lead author Wen Wang said in a news release.
In the case of the bioLogic shirt, that moisture comes in the form of sweat. As the bacteria relaxes and shrinks into itself, the cells pull away from the wearer, opening the flaps and letting fresh air flood in.
The shirt itself is tailored to the human heat and sweat map (which are different things), so it will open in the most effective areas.
“People may think heat and sweat are the same, but in fact, some areas like the lower spine produce lots of sweat but not much heat,” said former MIT graduate student Lining Yao, who was part of the team. “We redesigned the garment using a fusion of heat and sweat maps to, for example, make flaps bigger where the body generates more heat.”
Wang tested the shirt herself by hopping on an exercise bike and pedaling hard, until sweat began beading on her back. On cue, the flaps popped open, and “it felt like I was wearing an air conditioner on my back.”
They made a running shoe in much the same way, the flaps opening near the bottom of the shoe.
“In the beginning, we thought of making the flaps on top of the shoe, but we found people don’t normally sweat on top of their feet,” Wang said. “But they sweat a lot on the bottom of their feet, which can lead to diseases like warts. So we thought, is it possible to keep your feet dry and avoid those diseases?”
As of now, the team hopes to work with some sports apparel companies to commercialize the technology. But simply wicking away sweat is bacterial-sized beans compared to the potential future uses of such living materials, such as glow-in-the-dark biking vests or odor-destroying running tanks.
“We can combine our cells with genetic tools to introduce other functionalities into these living cells,” Wang said. “We use fluorescence as an example, and this can let people know you are running in the dark. In the future we can combine odor-releasing functionalities through genetic engineering. So maybe after going to the gym, the shirt can release a nice-smelling odor.”
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