The Next Alternative to Plastic Could Come from Squid
The remarkable properties of a recently discovered protein could revolutionize materials in a way that is unattainable with conventional plastics, finds a review published in Frontiers of Chemistry. Where is this protein found? Squid, of all places!
Originating in the ringed teeth of a squid's predatory arms, this protein can be processed into fibers with and films with applications ranging from health-monitoring "smart clothing," to self-healing recyclable fabrics that reduce microplastic pollution. Materials made from this protein are eco-friendly and biodegradable. Sustainable large-scale production can be achieved using laboratory culture methods.
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"Squid proteins can be used to produce next generation materials for an array of fields including energy and biomedicine, as well as the security and defense sector. We reviewed the current knowledge on squid ring teeth-based materials, which are an excellent alternative to plastics because they are eco-friendly and environmentally sustainable."Lloyd and Dorothy Foehr Huck Endowed Chair in Biomimetic Materials and Director of Center for Research on Advanced Fiber Technologies (CRAFT) at Penn State University, Lead Author Melik Demirel
As humanities eyes are opened to a post-plastic society, we are beginning to heed the warning signs of a dying planet—and nature's solutions.
"Nature produces a variety of smart materials capable of environmental sensing, self-healing, and exceptional mechanical function. These materials, or biopolymers, have unique physical properties that are not readily found in synthetic polymers like plastic. Importantly, biopolymers are sustainable and can be engineered to enhance their physical properties."Lloyd and Dorothy Foehr Huck Endowed Chair in Biomimetic Materials and Director of Center for Research on Advanced Fiber Technologies (CRAFT) at Penn State University, Lead Author Melik Demirel
The oceans, which have seen the worst of the plastic pollution, are, ironically, at the center of the sustainability search. A newly discovered protein from squid ring teeth (SRT), circular predatory appendages located on the suction cups used to strongly grasp prey, has gained interest due to its remarkable properties and sustainable production.
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These properties include: the elasticity, flexibility, and strength of SRT-based materials; along with their self-healing, optical, and thermal and electrical conduction properties. This can be explained by the variety of adoptable molecular arrangements. SRT proteins are composed of building blocks in a way that allows for micro-phase separation. This is similar to oil and water, but on a nano-scale. The blocks cannot separate completely, forming two layers, so molecular-level shapes are created instead. The shapes formed control the property of the material. Scientists have experimented with these to produce SRT-based products for a variety of uses.
In the textile industry, SRT protein could address one of the main sources of microplastic pollution. This would be done by providing a scratch-resistant coating that would reduce microfiber erosion in washing machines. A self-healing protein would also benefit the industry. This could increase the longevity and safety of damage-prone biochemical implants. It could also provide garments tailored for protection against chemical and biological warfare agents.
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It is even possible to weave these proteins into other compounds or technology. This could lead to the development of "smart clothing," which can protect us from airborne pollutants while keeping an eye on our health. Optical properties would allow SRT-based materials to then show information about our health and surroundings. Flexible photonic devices, components that create, manipulate, or detect light such as LEDs and optical displays—typically manufactured with hard materials like glass and quartz—are currently in development.
"SRT photonics are biocompatible and biodegradable, so could be used to make not only wearable health monitors but also implantable devices for biosensing or biodetecting."Lloyd and Dorothy Foehr Huck Endowed Chair in Biomimetic Materials and Director of Center for Research on Advanced Fiber Technologies (CRAFT) at Penn State University, Lead Author Melik Demirel
One of the main advantages of SRT-based materials over synthetic materials and plastics made from fossil fuels are its eco-credentials. SRT proteins are cheap, easily produced from renewable resources, and researchers have found a way of producing it without having to catch any squid.
"We don't want to deplete natural squid resources and hence we produce these proteins in genetically modified bacteria. The process is based on fermentation and uses sugar, water, and oxygen to produce biopolymers."Lloyd and Dorothy Foehr Huck Endowed Chair in Biomimetic Materials and Director of Center for Research on Advanced Fiber Technologies (CRAFT) at Penn State University, Lead Author Melik Demirel
The hope is that the prototypes will be available more widely soon, but more development is needed.
"Scaling up these materials requires additional work. We are now working on the processing technology of these materials so that we can make them available in industrial manufacturing processes."Lloyd and Dorothy Foehr Huck Endowed Chair in Biomimetic Materials and Director of Center for Research on Advanced Fiber Technologies (CRAFT) at Penn State University, Lead Author Melik Demirel
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