New material inspired by a sea worm changes according to the environment

Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have looked at a sea worm called Nereis virens in order to create a changing material, which has the ability to be flexible or rigid at convenience. The jaw of this worm has a texture similar to gelatin, but if the environment varies, the material may adopt the hardness of dentin or human bones.

Chemical engineer Francisco Martín-Martínez, a Spanish researcher at the MIT Laboratory for Atomistic and Molecular Mechanics and co-author of the paper, explains, "the jaw of Nereis virens is composed of a protein that contains large amounts of histidine, an amino acid that interacts with the ions of the environment and makes it more or less flexible depending on the environment in which it finds itself."

The material, described in a study published in the journal 'ACS Nano', has been developed in collaboration with the US Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL)."It's a hydrogel made from a synthesized protein, similar to the one that makes up the jaw of this worm and which gives it structural stability and impressive mechanical performance," says Martín-Martínez, who adds: "When we change the ions of the environment and the salt concentration, the material expands or contracts."

The team found that at the molecular level, the structure of protein material is strengthened when the environment contains zinc ions and certain pH indexes. The Zinc ions create chemical bonds with the structure of the compound. These bonds are reversible, and can form or break at convenience, making the material more dynamic and flexible.

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