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It feels like every day there is a new breakthrough in fabric technology resulting in marginal moisture management and heat retention. However, a team from MIT just took things to another level by incorporating bacteria into the design of a new fabric that autonomously opens small holes to vent out heat. All technical jargon aside, this is a shirt that knows when to open hole in the material, and close them again, based on how just how sweaty you are.

Since the future date in Back to the Future II has now passed, we’ve been forced to re-evaluate just what sort of expectations we had back in 1990. We may not have achieved self-tying shoes, or hoverboards yet, but Marty McFly might have been wearing a shirt made of this material under his self-drying jacket. It certainly looks and works like something from the future.

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The concept is a simple one. In fact, it is so simple that its origins can be traced back over a thousand years. The trick behind these transforming fabrics was first discovered by a Japanese samurai who used a certain kind of bacteria to ferment food. The properties that he noticed gave those bacteria the unique ability to react to moisture by “moving.” In reality they weren’t moving at all however, but were actually expanding and contracting depending on whether or not they were wet.

MIT researchers observed that the bacteria did not expand energy to perform this action, which helped them to engineer a special kind of “paint” for the new fabrics. That paint gives the fabric the ability to expand and contract based on moisture levels too.

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The team behind this breakthrough is now working with New Balance to develop materials for athletes. They’ve managed to create a process for printing fresh cells onto a fabric surface, imbuing it with the same properties found in the bacteria. Along with this, researchers are also incorporating conductive wires and using electric signals in combinations to control the resulting shape of the bend in the materials, allowing them to produce complex transformations in the fabrics themselves.

“The experience of wearing these garments is very special because they come to life once you start wearing them,” said fashion designer Oksana Anilionyte.

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We’ll just have to be patient to see what this all means for our next generation of clothing designed for the outdoors, but the idea of “smart” fabrics doesn’t seem quite so far-fetched at this point. Learn more about how this all works in the video below.

Biologic from Tangible Media Group on Vimeo.

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