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New route to glowing and magnetic fabrics

Technique makes ‘functional’ cotton fibers without genetic engineering

by Stu Borman
September 18, 2017 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 95, Issue 37

Photo of functionalized cotton fibers glowing under UV light.
Credit: Filipe Natalio
Cotton fibers containing fluorescent groups glow under UV light.

Researchers have created a new approach for producing “smart” textiles by treating the ovules of cotton plants with glucose conjugates of fluorescent and magnetic compounds. Cotton fibers that grow from the ovules incorporate the compounds and could conceivably be used to make glowing or magnetic cotton fabrics. Filipe Natalio of Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg and the Weizmann Institute of Science and coworkers developed the approach (Science, DOI: 10.1126/science.aan5830). The researchers point out that the incorporated functional compounds should be less likely to wear off fabrics than hydrophobic, conductive, or other types of fabric coatings applied by external chemical treatments. They synthesized a fluorescent glucose conjugate using a fluorescein compound and a magnetic glucose conjugate using a dysprosium complex and added the conjugates to cotton ovules in lab cultures. The conjugates enter cotton cells and weave together with other glucose molecules into cellulosic chains that make up cotton. No genetic engineering is involved. The fluorescent cotton fibers are weaker than normal ones, but the magnetic fibers are not weakened. Natalio and coworkers believe their biological fabrication approach can be extended to make functional, high-value products from other biological systems as well, such as bacteria, bamboo, silk, and flax.


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