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With this cotton-hack you could grow super-plants

Could you imagine feeding your plants superpowers?

Scientists from Israel claim to have figured out how to make your plain t-shirt anything but plain. It all starts with the cotton: by feeding the plant special mixtures made in their lab, the team says they can grow cotton with fluorescent or magnetic properties.

After the release of the study, the methods used have been criticised for lacking important details. Critics claim that while the scientists could show that the cellulose in the fibres had undergone changes, they couldn’t prove the new molecules were chemically woven, via enzymatic reactions, into strands of cellulose.

Filipe Natalio out of Weizmann Institute of Science led the team that used glucose (sugar) to trick the cotton plant into absorbing a mixture that contains desired capabilities. The team first altered glucose, by adding fluorescent dye molecules into the mix. Then they went to the root of what makes cotton fibers– the ovules, and bathed them in this mixture, tricking the plant to absorb the fluorescent molecules and simultaneously embedding this unnatural quality into cotton. When the fibres grew, the scientists saw a light yellow colour that turned bright green when exposed to ultraviolet light.

By integrating the properties into the fibers, the scientists argue that the materials are sturdier. So far, the process of giving textiles these extraordinary abilities has mainly been done by externally coating the fibers. This method is vulnerable and usage or washing could cause partial or full loss of function.

Sportswear is especially exposed to friction and washing. Embedding the glow into the fibers would result in longer lifespans of garments because the functionality is bult in and cannot be worn off. If realized, you can imagine the use-case for glowing cotton. Nighttime joggers and cyclists could wear it to stay safe in the dark, for example.

Using the same technique, the scientists went further and tried embedding the rare earth metal dysprosium into cotton, which led it to possess magnetic qualities. This, however, will not result in garments you decorate like a refrigerator, but rather a method to store information. Digital storage of information is often done through magnetism because it’s a form of non-volatile memory– meaning the information is stored even when loss of power occurs.

Natalio wants to work on different functionalities, such as embedding barcodes in the fibers, so you could track the fabric throughout its lifespan, or for pre-colouring fibers so the process of making dying textiles could be more environmentally friendly. Natalio strives to commercialize this technology, and he sees no end to the range of functionalities which could be woven into the cotton itself. Even though the study has its flaws, we’re excited about the potential of super fibres, and can’t wait to see more.

Feature image via Natalio-group.

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