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What's with these critters in workout clothes?

A group of researchers at MIT wants to infest clothing with bacteria to make it release heat and sweat like human skin.

Really.

The Tangible Media Group at the MIT Media Lab has partnered with sportswear company New Balance, MIT's Department of Chemical Engineering, and the Royal College of Art, to create a fabric that acts as a "second skin" complete with vents that open when the person wearing it sweats. It is just the latest development in the boom to bring technology and new fabrics to workout gear.

The vents open and close by means of tiny bacteria borrowed from an unlikely place — Japanese cooking.

The bacterium Bacillus subtilis natto has been used for centuries to ferment soybeans for the Japanese dish called natto.

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The bacteria can expand to twice their size when they come into contact with moisture. Placing them on fabric gives clothing the ability to release body heat and sweat.

The team grows its own bacteria in a lab — quickly enough, they say, to accommodate an industrial manufacturing process. They then deposit the solution onto a thin fabriclike film that can be sewn into conventional fabrics to make the clothing.

MIT developed fabric that has vents that can open and close.
Source: Tangible Media Group | MIT Media Lab.
MIT developed fabric that has vents that can open and close.

The team considers the bacteria "biological actuators" — tiny organic motors that can perform a specific task when they have some energy source, in this case, moisture.

The bacteria cells can be aligned in different ways to make the fabric take different shapes. It can be imbued with other properties, such as the ability to change color.

The "second skin" is just one of the potential applications of the bacteria actuators.

As the team says on its website, "Biohybrid flowers blossom and wilt reversible with both shape and color changing; a living tea leaf signals through transformation when the tea is ready; or a lampshade sculpts light activated by the light bulb."