A team of MIT researchers has designed a breathable workout suit with ventilating flaps that open and close in response to an athlete’s body heat and sweat. These flaps, which range from thumbnail- to finger-sized, are lined with live microbial cells that shrink and expand in response to changes in humidity. The cells act as tiny sensors and actuators, driving the flaps to open when an athlete works up a sweat, and pulling them closed when the body has cooled off.
The researchers have also fashioned a running shoe with an inner layer of similar cell-lined flaps to air out and wick away moisture. Details of both designs are published today in Science Advances.
Why use live cells in responsive fabrics? The researchers say that moisture-sensitive cells require no additional elements to sense and respond to humidity. The microbial cells they have used are also proven to be safe to touch and even consume. What’s more, with new genetic engineering tools available today, cells can be prepared quickly and in vast quantities, to express multiple functionalities in addition to moisture response.
To demonstrate this last point, the researchers engineered moisture-sensitive cells to not only pull flaps open but also light up in response to humid conditions.
“We can combine our cells with genetic tools to introduce other functionalities into these living cells,” says Wen Wang, the paper’s lead author and 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….