Flexible Rigid Biopolymer Inspired By Sea Cucumbers

A biopolymer that switches from rigid to flexible has been created by Case Western University researchers. It mimics the structure of sea cucumbers, which are able to change their skin from soft and flexible (for getting through narrow spots) to hard and rigid (armor to protect them from predators).

(Sea cucumbers alter their skin flexibility)

It is known that sea cucumbers have skin composed of very fine cellulose fibers. When attacked, surrounding cells secrete molecules that cause these "whiskers" to bind together; when relaxed, other cells release plasticizing proteins to loosen the fibers.

Weder's team isolated stiff cellulose fibers from the mantles of tunicates, sea creatures with skin similar to that of sea cucumbers. The researchers then combined the fibers with a rubbery polymer mixture. The fibers formed a uniform matrix throughout, reinforcing the softer polymer material. These intersecting points hold the network together, creating an inflexible material. "It's like a three-dimensional web in which these nanofibers overlap at certain points, and wherever they overlap, they stick to each other," says Weder.

(Sea cucumbers alter their skin flexibility)

It is hoped that this material could be used in biomedical applications, like implantable electrodes that could record brain activity over long periods of time, without the scarring produced by conventional metal electrodes.

Readers may recall the wet wired brain implants used in the 1995 film Johnny Mnemonic; some sort of flexible/rigid biopolymer would be just what the doctor ordered.

(Johnny Mnemonic's wet-wired brain implant)

Read more about the Adaptable Polymer Inspired by Sea Cucumbers. Thanks to Moira for pointing this one out.

Scroll down for more stories in the same category. (Story submitted 6/13/2008)

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