When you talk about skin-tight clothing, you’re using an apt metaphor. But when nanotechnology research scientists talk about it, they are developing new products. They want to create a fabric in which cells and tissues come together in a structure of protein fibers that fits snugly while retaining elasticity — just like skin.

Bioengineers at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) at Harvard University have copied the properties of skin in the lab. Their new technology allows them to make fabrics that are only a nanometer thick. Thanks to nanotechnology, these fabrics are strong but also flexible.


Says Adam W. Feinberg of Harvard, “To date, it has been very difficult to replicate this extracellular matrix using manmade materials. But we thought if cells can build this matrix at the surface of their membranes, maybe we can build it ourselves on a surface too. We were thrilled to see that we could.”

The ability to change the kind of protein they use in this material allows researchers to adjust thread count and other properties, making possible textiles that can be stretched as much as 1500 percent from their original size. This ability could make these fabrics useful in form-fitting bandages or clothing that adjusts its size depending on who is wearing it (or right after Thanksgiving dinner).

The army is developing a nanobattlesuit that could be bullet-resistant, as thin as spandex, and even contain health monitors and communications equipment. These jumpsuit-style outfits might even be able to react to and stop biological and chemical attacks. All the pieces would be integrated into an efficient lightweight suit.