MIT Has Designed a Workout Suit Covered With Living Cells to Keep You Cool

Scientists at MIT have developed a “biohybrid wearable” — a functional workout suit covered in microbes that contract when they sense heat or cold during exercise.

Researchers have debuted a workout suit printed with active microbial cells that is safe, hi-tech, and unlike any gym gear you’ve probably seen.

A group of 15 MIT scientists combined their expertise in areas ranging from fashion design to biological engineering in a project named “bioLogic.” The result is a “biohybrid wearable,” a functional workout suit covered in living cells that can wick away moisture and cool athletes during exercise. Details of the new garment were published in the journal Science Advances.

The project has been three years in the making, and was created by MIT Media Lab’s Tangible Media Group, led by Professor Hiroshi Ishii.

“We love things that are responsive,” said Lining Yao, co-lead author of the paper and a Ph.D candidate at the Tangible Media Group. The group, Yao said, aims to create genetically modifiable and responsive sensors out of microbial cells.

Microbial cells are hygroscopic, meaning they absorb moisture and humidity. While the cells are small in dry conditions, as they absorb moisture they begin to swell and change shape. It’s an amazing property, said the researchers, with many implications.

“We are generating motion without using electricity or energy-consuming power,” Yao said.

Though this is a feature of many microbial cells, the researchers wanted to create workout gear with cells that would be safe for people to wear daily. They settled on two bacteria for their prototypes: Bacillus subtilis, which is found in traditional Japanese natto soybeans, and a harmless strain of E. coli.

In photos, the prototype workout suit looks other-worldly. It is made from latex, and has dozens of small square flaps covered with these cells. The flaps were strategically placed around the suit based on sweat maps of the human body created by the researchers. The flaps stay flat on the skin when dry, but as humidity caused by sweat increases, the cells expand and lift the flaps away from the body.

“Once you start to sweat,” explained Wen Wang, another co-lead author and member of the Tangible Media Group team, “all these flaps open up automatically.”

The open flaps let fresh air onto the skin, and allow the sweat to quickly evaporate instead of staying trapped under the clothing. The researchers, who have partnered with New Balance, also debuted a prototype of matching running shoes that use microbial cells to circulate air around the sole of the foot.

While they have only made prototypes with two types of cells so far, the researchers plan to continue testing different types of microbial cells to find the strains that are most multi-functional. One idea is to use cells that are naturally fluorescent to create clothing that glows in the dark.

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The cells’ ability to open and close in response to humidity has many more applications than clothing. The Tangible Media Group has created several different products using this technology, including lampshades that open in response to heat and curtains that automatically close when they sense humidity from a rainy day. And since the cells are non-toxic (some are even edible), they are also considering developing a line of automated toys for young children.

These products, including the workout suit, aren’t available to the public just yet. Wang said that there are a few hurdles still, like making sure the suits are durable, washable, and affordable. But in a few years, you might be able to thank the living cells on your clothing for keeping you cool during that hot summer run.