Living moisture-responsive suit designed

Sports garment features Ventilating flaps, lined with live cells, which open and close in response to an athlete’s sweat.

Hannah CohenThis breathable workout suit prototype has ventilating flaps that open and close in response to an athlete’s body heat and sweat. The left photo was taken before exercise when ventilation flaps are flat; after exercise, the ventilation flaps have curved.

A breathable workout suit has been designed with ventilating flaps that open and close in response to an athlete’s body heat and sweat.

The small flaps are lined with live microbial cells that shrink and expand in response to changes in humidity.

The flaps open and close according to whether the wearer has worked up a sweat, or has cooled off, the cells acting as tiny sensors and actuators. A running shoe with an inner layer of cell-lined flaps has also been designed for the same function.

“We can combine our cells with genetic tools to introduce other functionalities into these living cells,” says Wen Wang, a former research scientist in MIT’s Media Lab and Department of Chemical Engineering.

“We use fluorescence as an example, and this can let people know you are running in the dark. In the future we can combine odour-releasing functionalities through genetic engineering. So maybe after going to the gym, the shirt can release a nice-smelling odour.”

The team, including 14 researchers at MIT, printed parallel lines of E. coli cells onto sheets of latex, creating two-layer structures, then exposed the fabric to changing moisture conditions.

Chin-Yi ChengThe left and right panels show the reversible change of cell size and cellular fluorescence due to moisture change.

When the fabric was dried the cells began to shrink, causing the overlying latex layer to curl up. When it was then exposed to steam, the cells began to glow and expand, causing the latex flatten out. After 100 dry/wet cycles, Wang confirmed the fabric experienced “no dramatic degradation” in either its cell layer or its overall performance. Wang explained that the cells are so strong that they can induce bending of the material on which they are coated.

“This work is an example of harnessing the power of biology to design new materials and devices and achieve new functions,” said Xuanhe Zhao, the Robert N. Noyce Career Development Associate Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and a co-author of the paper detailing the innovation published in Science Advances.

“We believe this new field of ‘living’ materials and devices will find important applications at the interface between engineering and biological systems.”