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Protein from squid could become a sustainable alternative to plastics

A protein discovered in the ringed teeth of a squid’s arms may provide a biodegradable and renewable alternative to plastics. The protein can be processed into fibers and films with applications ranging from “smart” clothes for health monitoring to self-healing, recyclable fabrics.

Study lead author Melik Demirel is the director of the Center for Research on Advanced Fiber Technologies (CRAFT) at Penn State University.

“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,” said Demirel. “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.”

After 100 years of plastic production, the subsequent waste is plaguing our planet, and scientists are seeking eco-friendly alternatives.

“Nature produces a variety of smart materials capable of environmental sensing, self-healing and exceptional mechanical function,” said Demirel. “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.”

The protein from squid ring teeth (SRT) has remarkable properties that will produce elastic, flexible, and strong materials. These SRT-based materials will have self-healing, optical, thermal, and electrical conducting capabilities. In the textiles industry, the SRT protein could address one of the main sources of microplastic pollution by producing a coating that will reduce microfiber erosion in washing machines.

Multiple layers of SRT proteins may be combined with other compounds or technology for the development of “smart” clothes, which could protect people from air pollution while also monitoring health.

“SRT photonics are biocompatible and biodegradable, so could be used to make not only wearable health monitors but also implantable devices for biosensing and biodetection,” said Demirel.

SRT proteins are easily produced from renewable resources, and the researchers have found a way to make them without catching a 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,” explained Demirel.

The team hopes that SRT-based prototypes will soon become widely available, but more development is needed.

“Scaling up these materials requires additional work,” said Demirel. “We are now working on the processing technology of these materials so that we can make them available in industrial manufacturing processes.”

The study is published in the journal Frontiers in Chemistry.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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