The animals that could save your life: Sea Cucumbers

Sea Cucumber | Image: National Geographic Sea cucumbers aren’t the sort of things you’d think could save someone’s life – most people will never even see one in their lives. But a new material, based on the design of a sea cucumber’s skin, may just be about to start a medical revolution.

When sea cucumbers get scared, they suddenly make their skin go hard, which offers more protection against predators than their normal soft skin. The new material designed by scientists obviously doesn’t go hard when it’s scared, but instead it has nanoparticles that make it go soft when it is wet and hard when it is dry.

Sea cucumber size comparison | Image: National Geographic Wait a minute… don’t loads of other materials go from hard to soft when you get them wet? Yes, but they usually lose strength when they’re wet, or they’ll break up when they go hard again.

It’s all very well designing a material that can change from soft to hard an infinite number of times, but why? The primary application the scientists had in mind would be brain electrodes for research into Alzheimer’s and similar diseases. The electrodes would be easy for surgeons to put in, because they would be hard and rigid, and then they would go soft when they made contact with the brain, which would help the electrodes to merge in with the brain, and thus work much better.

A scanning electron microscope's view of the new material | Image: BBC News Other possible applications include bullet-proof vests that are comfortable to wear, but can suddenly go hard when needed; casts for broken bones could be made to go hard or soft as required – there are loads of possibilities.

One final question: how did they make this material? Basically, it’s all down to nanoparticles that create super-strong hydrogen bonds whenever they get wet. When they dry out, the bonds disappear. Surprisingly, all the architecture for the material is based on the skin of the sea cucumber.

Animals really can do some amazing things. Just think about that good old sea cucumber when you get cured from Alzheimer’s.

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One Response

  1. Go, little sea cucumber, go! This new material would give a whole new referent to the phrase “cool as a cucumber,” wouldn’t it?
    I really like the way you (Richard, not the cuke) preface your explorations/explanations by boldly asking emperor’s-new-clothes questions. This style makes your posts very readable to a nongeek like me.

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