Today’s new “smart” materials range in purpose — a new polymer resin self-heals holes in space habitats, and carbon nanotube yarn can generate electricity — but they all depend on superficial coatings that turn old substances into novel tools. That’s a problem because the more they are used, the less functional they’ll become because of natural wear and tear.

Researchers are hopeful that they can solve that issue by building functionality directly into the fundamental building blocks of those materials, and it looks like they’re well on their way. In a paper published Thursday in Science, a team of researchers report that they made natural glow-in-the-dark cotton by growing it in a way that the plant incorporates fluorescent molecules into its very fibers.

“Fluorescence and magnetic properties were our proof-of-principle — the applications are now open,” lead author Filipe Natalio, Ph.D., tells Inverse. “Current approaches for smart textiles use coatings. In our approach, the functional molecule will be weaved together with other building blocks, like glucose, into functional threads.”

Micrscopic image of the cotton fibers after incorporation of the fluorescent exogenous molecule.
This cotton was grown with molecules that endow fluorescence. 

Natalio and his team managed to do this by synthesizing compounds called glucose derivatives, which acted as a molecular “glue” to connect the fluorescent molecules to the outermost cell layer of the cotton fibers. In the same experiment, they used these “vascular connections” to attach molecules that conferred magnetism to the cellulose fibers they were attached to.

Natalio, a scientist at the Weizmann Institute of Science, used to work on targeted drug delivery and biometrics before he became interested in producing smart materials. He’s excited about potential applications, like turning natural materials into a means to store data — especially a raw material like cotton, which he says he chose for this experiment because of its “economic importance and long relationship with humans.” If scientists can produce fibers with tailored properties, Natalio reasons, then they can change society’s “long-standing view of natural fibers.”

H) Isolated fibers showing fluorescent features J) Representation of the transport of the glucose through the embryo of the outermost layer of epidermis

In the future, he envisions an array of self-sustaining hydroponic greenhouses, where scientists can simply add the functional molecule of choice into their plant’s water container and watch their smart plants grow.

“After some time, you can collect your fibers — be they blue, red, fluorescent, or magnetic,” he says.

What Natalio thinks will comprise the “new era of material farming” is the concept of chemically manipulating a biological system — whether it’s cotton, flax, or bamboo — and reaping the end product for its tailored properties. He’s careful to point out, however, that this isn’t genetic engineering, unlike, say, those bunnies that were bred to glow in the dark.

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