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Scientists have grown glowing cotton fibers

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."