Using viruses to dye your clothes

People who still rely on public laundromats live in terror of bleach. If one person spills their bleach over a counter, or overloads the machine, an entire wardrobe is wiped out. But someday clothing could be entirely bleach-resistant. It won't be dyed with pigments. It will be dyed with viruses.

Most modern clothing is dyed using a simple system. Pigments are made, either from natural ingredients or during a manufacturing process. The pigments absorb certain types of light, and reflect others. The reflected shades are the pigment's official 'colors'. The clothes are then soaked in, or selectively exposed to, these pigments. They then take on the pigment's light-reflective qualities, and are officially dyed. Bleach breaks the chemical bonds of the pigments, and changes their light-reflective qualities, changing the color of the clothes.

The light absorption and reflection in molecules isn't the only way to change the color of a substance. There are also structural colors. The silver and gold beetles of Costa Rica have exoskeletons of collagen, which is a boring brown in cockroaches. The beetles layer cells of the substance to manipulate incoming lightwaves, causing the surface of beetle to appear to be as shiny as a chromed bumper. This color isn't added with small pieces of pigment, but built into the structure of the substance.

How to make clothes like this? To begin with, a malleable substance needs to be selected. Scientists fixed on collagen, a naturally-produced substance. On its own, collagen is colorless, but certain animals, like the blue-faced (and blue-butted) mandrills of western Africa, it can be structured in such a way as to reflect blue light. To get that structure, scientists needed a handy form of collagen, and found it in the long, bendable filament of collagen of certain harmless viruses.

When these viruses are put in certain solutions, they twist themselves into different strands. Those structures are then cemented in place, and made to coat a slide as a solid film. The amount of the virus in the solution, and the time that the glass slide was exposed to the virus, allowed researchers to change the structure on the slide, and the structure determined the color. These structures are immune to bleach - and some are even iridescent. Someday we could be walking around in bleach-resistant clothing dyed with pure viruses.

Maybe that explains the Star Fleet uniforms.

Via New Scientist and Nature.

Photo by Steve Mann via Shutterstock