Innovative Bio-Skin: Will Clothes One Day Self-Ventilate?

 PhD student and MIT researcher, Lining ("Lizzie") Yao, has created along with her highly skilled team a bio-skin that reacts to sweat and might suggest a future of self-ventilating clothes. Known as Bio Logic, this new material user interface (MUI) responds to moisture by expanding and contracting. The team at Tangible Media Group at the MIT Media Lab are proving that old adage about everything old becoming new again with their discovery  and re-adaptation of an ancient bacterium with a long and colorful history dating back 1,000 years known as Bacillus Subtilis natto.


Bacillus Subtillis NattoBacillus Subtillis Natto

More about this bacterium

Theories concerning where this mysterious bacteria came from are maniforld and murky, but it is known that this micro-organism made its home inside dry rice stalks, which were woven into bags that more than a thousand years ago carried soybeans. Over time, it became a tool of fermentation for a soybean-based Japanese dish known as natto. The inspiration to create BioLogic came from the modern quest to transform this strange natural phenomenon by combining it with artificial material, resulting in the bio hybrid. 




Lining Yao and the MIT team

PhD student, Lining Yao, was testing diverse micro-organisms in the lab when she discovered the amazing properties of the natto bacteria, which when exposed to moisture, contracted and expanded. This proved to be the eureka moment when she decided to utilize this bacterium so that it would act as a machine instead of an unstable organism.

For the Chinese-born designer and creator of innovative materials and interfaces, the heart of her research revolves around the intersection of original resources, digital fabrication and interaction design. She is currently a PhD candidate at Tangible Media Group MIT Media Lab where she focuses on pushing Human Computer Interaction toward Human Material Interaction. Before traveling to the United States she was both a design consultant and entrepreneur in Chinese local design and manufacturing. She has been the recipent of several awards in the field of industrial design including: the Red Dot Award and IF Design Award. She has earned a BS and  MFA from China's Zhejiang University and an MS in Media Arts and Science from MIT.


Lining YaoLining Yao

Her team members come from diverse backgrounds including: design, art, science and engineering and include: Professor Hiroshi Ishii, director, Tangible Media Group; Wen Wang, biotechnology and material science and MIT Department of Chemical Rngineering; Guanyuan Wang, industrial design and fabrication, MIT Media Lab/Zhejiang University; Helene Steiner, interaction design, MIT Media Lab/Royal College of Art; Chin-Yi Cheng, computational design and simulation, MIT Architecture; Jifei Ou, concept design and fabrication, MIT Media and Oksana Anilonyte, fashion design, MIT Media Lab/Royal College of Art.

How does BioLogic work?

In Yao's own words: "We are imagining a world where actuators and sensors can be grown rather than manufactured, being derived from nature as opposed to engineered in factories. BioLogic  is a wearable technology that grows in a dish, rather than a factory."



The long-term goal of her research  is to program the physical states of the density, shape, color, stiffness and texture of the material in question. Yao and her team bio-printed the bacteria onto fabric, which required them to grow natto cells in the laboratory's bio-reactors and meticulously track their growth via Atomic Force Microscopes  and other useful equipment. Billions of  cells were grown in these bio-reactors, which were subsequently bio-printed via micron-resolution printers. Ultimately, utilizing  a 3-D modeling technique, the natto cells were tested for diverse design patterns.



Designers were then given the printed film composites at the Royal College of Art and at the sportswear company, New Balance, for  the purpose of integrating these printed cells into clothing, specifically in high sweat spots, such as under the armpits. BioLogic is a skin-like film that responds to sweat volume and body temperature when they reach a certain threshold via fins which ventilate like tiny windows. Implanting these cells onto clothing means engineering materials so that they will act like material user interfaces (MIUs).

The future of cell-based technology

Although cell-based clothing technology  could be the future of clothing, its application isn't limited to garments for athletes and such. Due to its reactive nature, this bio-skin  could be implanted in kinetic lampshades, which open and close when exposed to heat from the light bulb, or even extend to  tea bags, which could signal when they are good to use.

The technology behind BioLogic is still in early stages, but its presence  marks a moment in time when bio is the new interface. The gap in knowledge is evident as the research team admits that there are literally millions of other organisms out there awaiting study. This new bio-skin represents the harmonious blend of biology and engineering. Such a perspective can only alter those two fields of study as we know them today. 

Can you think of other material user interfaces the researchers of tomorrow could explore?

Closing thoughts on bacteria:

Nothing is more conservative than a bacterium. ~ Nick Lane