The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab and New Balance have teamed up to produce sports clothing that recognizes when the wearer is heating up, which signals it to open holes to allow for cooling airflow. The new clothing from bioLogic actually breathes on command from bacteria living on the clothing fabric.

The bacteria – Bacillus subtilis natto –  is traditionally used in Japanese cooking to ferment soybeans. The MIT researchers found that the bacteria expands and contracts in humidity so they applied a film of the non-toxic and FDA approved bacteria to the fabric to see if they could use it like tiny motors to open flaps.

Representatives from New Balance, a Media Lab partner, when hearing of the experiments, expressed an interest in teaming up to make a breathable clothing line.

According to Lining Yao, the project’s lead researcher, they put the film into clothing in the places where people ” get the sweatiest” with New Balance designers biomapping where the fabric should open up. The clothes are now being tested by company-sponsored athletes.

Yao says working with a live medium has its challenges as, “Bacteria can be finicky, and it can die early in the cell-growing process”. Making the bacteria-infused clothing work on a large scale is also a challenge and it take billions of them to make a shirt.

She says while the the strongest application is in garments, she and her colleagues have experimented with other projects, such as lamp shades that let out increasing amounts of light under certain conditions.

“Nothing is really technically impossible, and we’re looking at daily objects,” Yao says. “For instance, it would be amazing if your daughter’s favorite shoe grew bigger as she did.”

“You can empower an object to be more adaptive and responsive. It’s nature’s approach and an engineering approach,” says Yao. “For me, personally, it’s the future.”

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