Cloth Coated in Fish Sperm DNA Doesn’t Burn

Coated in sperm DNA and set on fire, this cotton cloth just doesn’t want to burn

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Jacob Bøtter

DNA, deoxyribonucleic acid, is a wonderful molecule. The blueprint of all life, the little double helix holds massive amounts of information in a tightly coiled structure—a repeating sequence of limited molecular variability that provides all of life’s diversity. DNA is also, apparently, a pretty good flame retardant.

According to a new study, scientists who collected sperm from herring, isolated the DNA, dissolved it in water, rubbed it on a cotton cloth, let it dry out and set it on fire with a natural gas torch found that DNA prevents the cloth from burning. (Science is weird.)

Wired‘s Nadia Drake writes:

DNA’s chemical structure makes it ideal for the flame-stopping job. When heated, its phosphate-containing backbone produces phosphoric acid, which chemically removes water from cotton fibers while leaving behind a flame-resistant, carbon-rich residue. The nitrogen-containing bases release ammonia — which dilutes flammable gases and inhibits combustion reactions — and can act as “blowing agents,” which help turn the carbon-rich deposits into a slow-burning protective layer. Ultimately, these ingredients stop combustion by forming either a carbon-rich foam, or a protective, glassy carbon coating called char.

A cotton cloth with sperm DNA:

And without sperm DNA:

The scientists say that DNA could potentially be used as a next generation flame retardant in fabrics. But it probably wouldn’t hurt their sales figures if they could find a different DNA source.

More from Smithsonian.com:

This Gun Shoots Criminals With DNA
Books of the Future May Be Written in DNA
Junk DNA Isn’t Junk, and That Isn’t Really News