May 23, 2017 I Brett Tingley

Scientists Sew Genetically Modified E. Coli into Living Clothing

Oh, E. coli bacteria, is there anything you can’t do? Aside from giving humans food poisoning and urinary tract infections, the wondrous little bugs can be easily genetically manipulated into doing all sorts of weird stuff. Genetics researchers have turned the bacteria into organic hard drives and have even managed to create the world’s first six-letter DNA code out of modified E. coli. The bacteria has become the plaything of biohackers and researchers worldwide, yet we still don’t know what the long-term results might be of such experimentation. I'm sure it'll be fine. Frankenstein is just an allegory, after all. When have those ever been right?

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Kinda like Legos, but for life.

Now, researchers at MIT have created a creepy biological material using genetically modified E. coli in what might be the first example of semi-living clothing. The material, dubbed “bioLogic,” has been woven into a self-cooling fabric and is being aimed at the sportswear market. So far, the researchers claim that the fabric can self-regulate temperature and humidity by responding to the wearer’s body temperature and perspiration. Even weirder, the E. coli in the fabric have been genetically modified to glow at night.

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E. coli are embedded into the fabric's vents which open as the bacteria respond to body heat and sweat.

According to an MIT press release, the fabric’s designer Wen Wang believes there are even more outlandish applications waiting in store for the bioLogic fabric:

We can combine our cells with genetic tools to introduce other functionalities into these living cells. 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.

Just like my shirts! Except my gym and I currently disagree over what "nice-smelling" constitutes. Advances like these hint at a future where materials or even electronics are no longer manufactured or assembled, but instead are grown. As geneticists find more and more ways to force the very fabric of life into doing our bidding, we might have to revise our current definitions of what constitutes life to get around some of the ethical issues that might arise. Sweaty bacteria is one thing, but growing a clone of yourself just to harvest her sweet youthful organs in old age is another.

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Unlike other T-shirts, this one should not be eaten after workouts.

Brett Tingley

Brett Tingley is a writer and musician living in the ancient Appalachian mountains.

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