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'Naturally' glowing cotton yields dazzling new threads

American Association for the Advancement of Science

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IMAGE: Digital camera image from in vitro cotton model after incorporation of exogenous molecules with new functionalities. This material relates to a paper that appeared in the Sept. 15, 2017, issue... view more 

Credit: Filipe Natalio

Cotton that's grown with molecules that endow appealing properties - like fluorescence or magnetism - may one day eliminate the need for applying chemical treatments to fabrics to achieve such qualities, a new study suggests. Applying synthetic polymers to fabrics can result in a range of appealing properties, but anything added to a fabric can get washed or worn away. Furthermore, while many fibers used in fabrics are synthetic (e.g., polyester), some consumers prefer natural fibers to avoid issues related to sensation, skin irritation, smoothness, and weight. Here, Filipe Natalio and colleagues created cotton fibers that incorporate composites with fluorescent and magnetic properties. They synthesized glucose derivatives that deliver the desirable molecules into the growing ovules of the cotton plant, Gossypium hirsutum. Thus, the molecules are embedded into the cotton fibers themselves, rather than added in the form of a chemical treatment. The resulting fibers exhibited fluorescent or magnetic properties, respectively, although they were weaker than raw fibers lacking the embedded composites, the authors report. They propose that similar techniques could be expanded to other biological systems such as bacteria, bamboo, silk, and flax - essentially opening a new era of "material farming."

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