Growing cotton in commercial quantities, as everyone knows, requires hefty amounts of water, sunlight and labour.
In the very near future, in might also require two extra ingredients, both a little tricky to pronounce: 6-carboxyfluorescein–glucose, and dysprosium–1,4,7,10-tetraazacyclododecane-1,4,7,10-tetraacetic acid–glucose.
Proof-of-concept research published in the journal Science suggests that inoculating these two molecules into cotton plants might well catalyse a second period of commercial ubiquity for the crop, re-engineering the familiar fabric made from it to take a central role in the widely predicted boom in wearable technology.
A study led by Filipe Natalio, of Martin Luther University in Halle, Germany, demonstrates a bio-engineering pathway in which the addition of the molecules into the plant produces fibres with “unnatural properties such as fluorescence or magnetism”.
The results were achieved after inculcating the molecule pair into fertilised cotton ovules in a laboratory. The glucose molecule acts as a carrier, transporting the second substance through the growing plant’s vascular system and depositing it in its epidermal layers.
The outcomes demonstrated by Natalio and colleagues serve in part as demonstration of process, but also promise directly useful adaptations. Fluorescent fabrics have multiple potential uses, as high-visibility clothing, for instance, or in wearable monitors. Magnetic fibres also have many possible applications in areas where electrical conductivity is beneficial.
According to the researchers, the new uber-cotton has a big advantage over other wearable smart-textiles in development: durability.
“Current approaches that rely on fibre coatings suffer from function loss during wear,” they write.
Other research into smart fabrics that avoid the problem of having the smart bits wear off or wash out include work by the US Army incorporating silver nanowires into cotton and polyester, and stretchy electricity-generating nano-scale “twistrons’ under development at the University of Texas.
Natalio’s team has yet to present further research on real-world scale-up of bioengineered glowing cotton, but the work thus far, its paper concludes, suggests the process is not restricted to a single agricultural species.
Its use, the scientists say “could be expanded to other biological systems such as bacteria, bamboo, silk, and flax”.
Andrew Masterson is a former editor of Cosmos.
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