Ten Materials Inspired By Mother Nature (VIDEO)

The natural world is filled with strange, fascinating structures that are stronger, more flexible and more resilient than anything humans can make.

9. Sea cucumbers that stiffen on demand

 Photo: Bernard DUPONT/Flickr/CC
Photo: Bernard DUPONT/Flickr/CC

Sea cucumbers may, at first glance, seem rather uninspiring. They do, however, exhibit a unique and fascinating characteristic: When under threat, their nervous system triggers the stiffening of their external dermis (outer skin) by up to a hundredfold, a property associated with an abundance of collagen proteins.

The dermis of sea cucumbers also contains other protein molecules that can bind to collagen and make it much stiffer. When sea cucumbers relax, their bodies soften again under the action of a second set of molecules.

Professor Tatsuo Motokawa’s research group at the Tokyo Institute of Technology has recently sequenced some of the molecules associated with both the stiffening and softening abilities of sea cucumber dermis. If replicated, this property of mutability, or adaptability, could prove useful for developing artificial connective tissues or collagen-based materials for reconstructive surgery.

Ali Miserez is an assistant professor at the School of Materials Science and Engineering, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

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