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Inspired by sea slugs: Microneedles could transform health monitoring

In the ever-evolving landscape of personalized medicine, there is an increasing demand for advanced wearable devices that can monitor everything from heartbeats to glucose levels.

Despite this progress, there remains a significant challenge in creating devices that seamlessly integrate with the human body, particularly for long-term and invasive monitoring. Scientists at USC have turned their attention to a new prospect for health monitoring: microneedles inspired by sea slugs.

Innovative solutions from the deep sea

USC researcher Hangbo Zhao, an expert in advanced manufacturing and flexible electronics, is helping close a significant gap in health monitoring.

Zhao’s research is dedicated to developing more adaptable and less invasive health monitoring technologies. His latest innovation is a revolutionary type of microneedle electrode. This new development promises to transform the way we monitor health metrics.

The microneedle electrodes are crafted to be “soft” and highly flexible, making them perfect for use with muscle and skin tissues that often change shape.

Unlike traditional microneedle electrodes that are rigid and can be uncomfortable, Zhao’s design is flexible, allowing these electrodes to adapt to movements and changes in the tissue. This ensures better contact and reduces the risk of tissue damage.

Hybrid fabrication method

Central to this innovation is a hybrid fabrication method developed in the researcher’s lab. This method blends laser micromachining, microfabrication, and transfer printing to produce microelectrode arrays that can stretch by 60 to 90 percent – the highest ever reported in the field.

This process not only enhances the flexibility of the microneedles but also allows for the customization of their geometric and functional properties.

From sea slugs to microneedles

The idea for these microneedle electrodes was inspired by research on sea slugs. The initial tests involved recording electrical activities in the muscles of sea slugs, proving the feasibility of the electrodes for dynamic and moving tissues.

The research carries far-reaching implications that go well beyond basic health monitoring. The technology crafted by Zhao and his USC team is also adept for applications such as analyzing brain and nerve activity, sensing skin interstitial fluids, diagnosing neuromuscular disorders, and facilitating targeted drug delivery.

Innovative health monitoring

As the medical community seeks more precise and less intrusive health monitoring tools, the development of these soft microneedles represents a significant step forward.

For patients apprehensive about traditional microneedle use, this new technology could provide a much-needed alternative that offers high fidelity sensing with minimal discomfort.

The research conducted by the USC team is not just a technological achievement but a potential game-changer for healthcare professionals, biotechnology firms, and anyone interested in a healthier, longer life.

More about sea slugs 

Sea slugs, also known as nudibranchs, are fascinating marine creatures belonging to the mollusk class Gastropoda. These animals are noted for their extraordinary colors and striking forms, which make them a favorite among underwater photographers and marine enthusiasts. 

Appearance of sea slugs

Unlike their terrestrial relatives, the snails, sea slugs do not have a visible shell. This lack of a shell contributes to their varied and often flamboyant appearances, which are believed to serve as a deterrent to predators through aposematic coloration, signaling their potential toxicity.

Distribution and diet

Sea slugs are found in oceans all over the world, from shallow reefs to deep ocean floors. They feed on a variety of food sources, including algae, sponges, and even other sea slugs. 

Unique adaptations

Some species have developed remarkable adaptations, such as the ability to incorporate the photosynthetic capabilities of the algae they eat, allowing them to derive energy directly from sunlight, a process known as kleptoplasty.


The reproduction of sea slugs also presents interesting aspects; they are hermaphrodites, meaning each individual possesses both male and female reproductive organs. After mating, both partners can lay eggs, increasing their chances of reproductive success.

Defense mechanisms

One of the most striking features of sea slugs is their defense mechanisms. Besides their bright colors, some species can produce toxins or incorporate toxins from the prey they consume into their own bodies, making them unpalatable or dangerous to predators. Additionally, some can even shed parts of their body to escape from threats.

The study is published in the journal Science Advances.


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