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Cotton modified by chemists. Photo: Filipe Natalio

Cotton fibers that glow or are magnetic have been grown in a lab, researchers report in Science today. Instead of going the genetic engineering route, "we just used what Nature gave us," says study author Filipe Natalio from the Weizmann Institute of Science.

Why it matters: Dyes, retardants and other fabric treatments can wash away, wear off or irritate some people's skin. Beyond durability, the researchers say they've taken a first step toward "material-farming" that may allow specialty fibers to be made from plants, spiders or silkworms.

How it works: Plants arrange sugar molecules produced through photosynthesis to create fibers. Those molecules enter the plant's ovules (part of their ovaries where they are arranged and grow into fibers) in two different ways: by osmosis and through a gate of sorts that recognizes and allows the sugar in. Filipe Natalio, a scientist at the Weizmann Institute of Science, and his colleagues synthesized glucose molecules that also carried a magnetic molecule or one that fluoresces into the cells that then used them to form the fibers. The result? Fibers with fluorescent or magnetic properties.

TBD: How to incorporate more of the molecules (roughly 5% of the fluorescence-modified molecules were absorbed) and to achieve the new properties without sacrificing others. (The modifications to the sugar molecules interfered with the way were arranged and weakened the fiber's structure.) Also, the cotton fibers in the study were grown in a lab. ("These are tiny amounts — basically for ant fashion," Natalio jokes.) To produce fibers with new functions at a meaningful scale, the researchers would need to figure out how to deliver the molecules to plans growing in a field.

If it works... Natalio envisions ones day being able to record data on fabric created from fibers that incorporate the material in CDs or reinforcing bamboo with carbon nanotubes.

Note: Science published an Editorial Expression of Concern about supplemental material provided by the researchers. Natalio said it is a labeling error that does not jeopardize the manuscript and they are writing an erratum in response. The findings of the study are contested by some researchers, per the NYT. On Nov. 17, 2017, the journal Science removed the Editorial Expression of Concern: "After discussions with the authors and minor revisions to the manuscript and supplementary materials, including corrections to a few other minor errors in the text that do not affect the conclusions of the paper, the editors are now confident in the results."

Go deeper

USAID chief tests positive for coronavirus

An Air Force cargo jet delivers USAID supplies to Russia earlier this year. Photo: Mikhail Metzel/TASS via Getty Images

The acting administrator of the United States Agency for International Development informed senior staff Wednesday he has tested positive for coronavirus, two sources familiar with the call tell Axios.

Why it matters: John Barsa, who staffers say rarely wears a mask in their office, is the latest in a series of senior administration officials to contract the virus. His positive diagnosis comes amid broader turmoil at the agency following the election.

Bryan Walsh, author of Future
6 hours ago - Health

COVID-19 shows a bright future for vaccines

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Promising results from COVID-19 vaccine trials offer hope not just that the pandemic could be ended sooner than expected, but that medicine itself may have a powerful new weapon.

Why it matters: Vaccines are, in the words of one expert, "the single most life-saving innovation ever," but progress had slowed in recent years. New gene-based technology that sped the arrival of the COVID vaccine will boost the overall field, and could even extend to mass killers like cancer.

7 hours ago - Health

Beware a Thanksgiving mirage

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Don't be surprised if COVID metrics plunge over the next few days, only to spike next week.

Why it matters: The COVID Tracking Project warns of a "double-weekend pattern" on Thanksgiving — where the usual weekend backlog of data is tacked on to a holiday.