Viridian Note 00262: Bio-Active Fabrics

Bruce Sterling <>
13 Aug 2001 16:40:30 -0000

Key concepts: couture, bacteria, Big Mike the Viridian Bug, self-cleaning clothing, Viridian embrace decay principle, genetic modification, luciferase autofluorescence

Attention Conservation Notice: it's another installment in our couture series. It's about clothes that swarm with microbes. Includes a long appendage of bio-active techspeak of primary interest to fabric specialists. Over 2,000 words.

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Prof Alex Fowler's home page. The pitch about materials science and textile research.

"Bacteria could create self-cleaning clothes

by Eugenie Samuel
Boston, July 5,  02001

    "Bacteria impregnated into every single fibre of a fabric, could live, breed and eat up the dirt, creating self-cleaning clothes.

    "Eventually, the garments in your wardrobe may be able to support a variety of bacteria engineered to eat odour- causing chemicals and human sweat. Other bacteria might secrete waterproof and protective coatings to extend the life of clothing and produce antiseptic for bandages.

    "Ironically, textile makers have spent millions developing fibres blended with, say, silver ions or chlorine to kill off the bugs in fabric. But encouraging bacteria to grow on fibres turned out to be harder than Alex Fowler, from the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, had expected.

    "'I thought they would wick into the fibre by capillary action, but it didn't turn out like that,' he says. Brute force was required. (((It takes real he-men to domesticate and wear bacteria.)))

"Vacuum action

    "Fowler and his team developed a vacuum pump that could connect to the end of the hollow fibres from the milkweed plant. Although no longer used to make clothes, the plant is still used to make rope. (((Are hemp enthusiasts listening?)))

    "The pump sucks a few drops of agar jelly containing Escherichia coli into the fibre. The bacteria easily formed a thriving colony and began to breed. In the most recent tests, Fowler had no problem firing several hundred bacteria into the fibre. 'They're tough little guys,' says Fowler. ((("Hey look, I just 'fired' my T-shirt's armpits!")))

    "Fowler uses a harmless strain of E. coli genetically engineered to produce a fluorescent protein from a jellyfish. This makes the bacterium glow as it grows, allowing researchers to monitor its progress. ((("My Dad Went To U. Mass Dartmouth, And All I Got Was This Genetically Altered Milkweed-Fiber T-Shirt That Glows in the Dark Like a Jellyfish.")))

    "So far, the group can't be sure how long the bacteria will survive in the fibres. They'll probably become dormant after several weeks when their food supply runs out, but Fowler hopes to reactivate them by soaking the milkweed fibres in additional nutrients. (((Baby barf, egg-drop soup... imagine the possibilities!)))

    "So if your shirt was impregnated with a strain of E. coli designed to feed on human sweat and the proteins that cause body odours, you'd only have to wear it to jolt the bugs into action.

    "For some other strains, you might have to douse it with additional nutrients occasionally. 'You could end up having to feed your shirt instead of wash it,' says Fowler. (((And since E. Coli happily lives in and on human flesh, your odor-free intestines can also glow in the dark!)))

    "Sweaty jeans

    "Alex Lightman, chief executive officer of Charmed Technology, a California-based fashion company that designs futuristic outfits, (((, be there or be square))) says the market may not be ready for a living suit just yet, but he thinks it's a great idea. 'I like it, get me one,' he says.

    "Lightman points out that most people are familiar with the idea that we have bacteria living on us all the time anyway.

    "'I wear the same pair of jeans all the time and I'm sure they have bacterial colonies living in them, but if they were selected to convert my sweat into sweet-smelling pheromones, that would be great,' he says." (((Me three! They'll also make great after-dinner napkins when we're all devoured by Parsee vultures!)))

(((And now for the hard work behind the pop-science headlines. The following science proposal explains how people swing grants for this kind of activity.)))

"National Textile Center
Year 10 Project Proposal

"Development of Bio-Active Fabrics

"Project Team: Leader Alex J. Fowler
UMass Dartmouth / Bioengineering


"To develop fabrics that contain micro-fabricated bio- environments and biologically activated fibers.  These fabrics will ultimately have genetically engineered bacteria and cells incorporated into them, which will enable them to generate and replenish chemical coatings and chemically active components.

"*  Micro-fabricate devices able to sustain cellular or bacterial life for extended periods and capable of being incorporated into fibers or fabrics.

"*  Test these biological micro-environments for tolerance to extremes of temperature, humidity and exposure to washing agents.

"*  Incorporate micro-fabricated bio-environments into fabrics and test their tolerance to physical stress on the fabrics: tension, crumpling and pressure.

"*  Identify the major obstacles to the long-term function of bio-active fabrics and the strategies to overcome them."

(((It's honest work!)))

"Relevance to NTC Mission: 

"Biotechnology is revolutionizing the way problems are solved in almost all areas of life. Bacteria are used to remediate oil and chemical spills; genetically engineered plants resist pests and weed killers; and bioreactors are used to produce drugs and enzymes to treat cancer and unclog drains.  The scope and usefulness of bio-engineered products are constantly increasing. (((So let's wear some!)))

"Clothing is an ideal medium in which to implant mobile bio-environments.  Niche applications for bio-active fabrics exist in the medical and defense industries == e.g. drug producing bandages (((!))) or protective clothing with highly sensitive cellular sensors == but bio-fabrics may form the basis of a whole new line of commercial products as well: fabrics that literally eat odors with genetically engineered bacteria, self cleaning fabrics and fabrics that continually regenerate water and dust repellants.

(((And, if he don't pay for the patented microbes, the bacteria can devour the deadbeat's flesh like the fatal cloak of Hercules! Those "cellular sensors" that glow in the dark sound especially promising in the erotic nightwear market.)))


"State of the Art:

"The micro-fabrication of biological micro-environments is well established.  (...) Our lab focuses primarily on the use of micro-fabrication of cellular environments for use in bio-artificial organs.   Micro-electronic manufacturing systems  technology  (MEMS) (((wahoo!))) and the use of polydimethylsiloxane enables us to build bio-friendly microstructures.  (...)

    "Most of the work in fabric biotechnology has been in the development of biocidal fabrics. (((Killing germs? How backward of them.))) (...) Our concept differs in wanting to use genetically engineered bacteria and cell strains to manufacture the chemicals within the textiles themselves, thereby making the chemical stores within the fabrics self-replenishing.  In addition our emphasis will not be on the production of generically biocidal or anti- microbial chemicals. (...)

    "References:  Darnell, J. and Lodish, H., 1995, Molecular Cell Biology 3rd ed., Scientific American Books, NY.

    "Folch, A., Ayon, A., Hurtado, O., Schmidt, MA and Toner, M., 1999, 'Molding of deep polydimethylsiloxane microstructures for microfluidics and biological applications,'  J of Biomechanical Engineering, v. 121, pp. 28-34.

    "Hunt, L., Jordan, M., DeJesus, M. and Wurm, FM, 1999, 'GFP-expressing mammalian cells for fast, sensitive, noninvasive cell growth assessment in a kinetic mode,' Biotechnol Bioeng, v. 65, pp. 201-205.

    "Voldman, J., Gray, M. and Schmidt, M., 1999, 'Microfabrication in biology and medicine,' Annual Review of Biomedical Engineering, v. 1, pp. 401-425.


(...) "We are now incorporating these bacteria into milkweed and raw cotton fibers.  We are investigating efficient ways to introduce bacterial growth medium into the hollow fiber cores with the aid of the wetting agents Trycol 5950/52 and Ethal-DA-4/6.  We have found that the autofluoresence of both milkweed and cotton fibers obscures the GFP signal somewhat; but we have also acquired a second genetically engineered strain of e. coli that produces bioluminescent luciferase. (...)

    "Bacteria in a favorable environment will grow exponentially until they have exhausted the surrounding nutrients.  In some applications these nutrients may be replenished by human body excretion (sweat), (((and why stop there? It's not like the human body lacks excretions))) but for other applications the growth of bacteria needs to be controlled. 

    "We will control the growth kinetics of bacterial colonies within the fibers by genetically engineering amino-acid deficient bacteria.  These bacteria are incapable of growth unless the selected amino-acid is provided externally.  We will manufacture micro-fabricated time release capsules to deliver the amino acid to the environment in a controlled manner, thereby, providing predictable and controllable bacterial growth. ((("New TIDE Non-Detergent, With Selected Amino Acids")))


    "If fiber fragility is shown to be a problem we will design fabrics with reinforcing fibers surrounding the relatively fragile bio-fibers to increase durability.  The critical experiments at this stage will be exposure of the bio-active fabric to environmental stresses to see which stresses are most detrimental to long term function." ((("Hey Professor! I sneezed on it! Is that okay?")))

    "We will also develop bio-films by establishing bacterial cultures on gas permeable substrates.  These bio-film cultures will be incorporated into poly-laminate fabrics.  The insulating and shell materials will be varied. The bacterial function will be studied as a function of the surrounding materials, substrate permeability and interlaminar spacing. 

    "The durability of poly-laminate bio-film fabrics will be tested under tension and crumpling, as will the ability of the bio-films to sustain and contain bacterial growth in the face of environmental stress.  The relative efficacy of the film based fabric versus the hollow fiber based fabric will be assessed both under ideal conditions and as a function of environmental stress."

    (((They're not kidding, ladies and gentlemen. As our reward for persevering through the jargon, now we're really ahead of the curve: clothes made of human and animal skin cells!)))

    "In later stages of the project we will establish bio-active fabrics based on mammalian keratinocytes.  These cells are tolerant of large temperature fluctuations and naturally form biological barriers since they form the outer surface of the skin.  We will develop encapsulated polydimethylsiloxane bio-environments for inclusion in poly-laminate fabrics and micro-strands that can be formed into non-woven fabrics or incorporated into yarns.

    "The primary obstacle we anticipate is the disruption of biological micro-environments when exposed to environmental stress. ((("My underwear died!"))) (...)

    "We can anticipate that our first bio-active fabrics will fail to sustain bacterial function, or possibly even bacterial life, when exposed to the wide-variety of stresses a commercial fabric would experience.  (...) The bio-fabrics may be humidity sensitive, temperature sensitive or sensitive to air flow.  The biological environments may retain function when intact, but lose function when cracks in the hollow fiber or film layer allow bacterial migration or contamination.  We will determine which of these stresses seriously impair bacterial function or survival in fabrics. ((("My Grandma's bacterial wedding-dress ate everything else in this trunk!")))

    "We intend in the upcoming year to begin using Bacillus bacterial species in anticipation of these obstacles.  While Bacillus are not as well characterized as e. coli (making genetic engineering more difficult), certain species of Bacillus are tolerant of heat and alkalinity (soap).  Bacillus are also spore forming, which makes them good candidates for applications in which the bacteria need to be non-continuously active. (...)

"Outreach to Industry: 

"Our team is in contact with many textile manufacturers and biotechnology companies.  We made a presentation this year at the Intelligent Textiles Conference in Providence.  Through that activity we made contact with the Adidas corporation whose head of R&D is very interested in bio-active footwear. (((Brings fresh meaning

to the term "sweatshop!"))) We have also been contacted
by the Titleist Corporation regarding this project. 

"New Resources Required: 

"(...) The major capital expense is the establishment of a biotechnology laboratory at UMass Dartmouth.  This year we established a state of the art microscopy facility and bacterial culture lab.  In the upcoming year we need to expand our cell and tissue culture facility to allow for the culture of larger bacterial colonies and of mammalian cells.  Continuing expenses mostly support graduate students, post-doctoral researchers and costs associated with genetic engineering and microfabrication." (((I hope that'll fit in my closet.)))

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