Shape-shifting Sea Cucumbers Inspire New Biomaterials

October 7, 2016 | Erica Tennenhouse

sea cucumber
Photo credit: Maxim Gavrilyuk/Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Study reveals how echinoderms rapidly change the stiffness of their bodies.

Sea cucumbers are the shapeshifters of the ocean. Though their bodies are normally firm, when threatened, sea cucumbers can almost liquefy themselves to squeeze into narrow spaces and hide.

Scientists from Queen Mary University of London have discovered how sea cucumbers manage to rapidly change the stiffness of their bodies, and the findings could inspire new biomaterials for medical use.

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Collagen is a type of protein found in the connective tissues of animals. It is known that echinoderms — a group of marine animals that includes starfish and sea cucumbers — have what is referred to as “mutable connective tissues” (MCTs), which can switch from firm to jelly-like under the control of the nervous system.

To understand what makes the sea cucumber’s MTCs so flexible, the researchers used a high-resolution X-ray probe that measured how the fibrous building blocks of collagen in the connective tissues change their orientation as the creature shape shifts.

Rather than change the stiffness of the fibers themselves, the study revealed that the sea cucumbers would alter the stiffness of the tissue between individual fibers to rapidly change shape, as the researchers report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

With this knowledge, the researchers hope that scientists will eventually be able to mimic the remarkable properties of the sea cucumber’s tissues. Study lead author Himadri Gupta notes in a press release that potential applications include tissue engineering, cosmetic treatments against skin ageing, implantable biosensors, and development of materials for soft robotics.

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