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Squid Teeth Could Hold the Secret to Reducing Microplastic Pollution

A protein recently discovered in the teeth-lined suckers of a squid’s tentacles could one day “revolutionize” materials in ways previously unattainable with conventional plastic, researchers have found.

“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,” Melik Demirel, director of the Center for Research on Advanced Fiber Technologies (CRAFT) at Penn State University, said in a statement.

Biopolymers based on these spiky structures could also provide an “excellent” alternative to plastics that will biodegrade in the environment without causing harm, he argued in a paper published last month in the journal Frontiers in Chemistry.

“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,” Demirel explained. “Importantly, biopolymers are sustainable and can be engineered to enhance their physical properties.”

Such engineering can take place because squid ring teeth (SRT) proteins are composed of molecular “building blocks” that can be configured in different ways to produce materials with various properties.

In the textiles industry, SRT proteins could help mitigate microplastic pollution by creating a coating that resists microfiber erosion during laundry. A self-healing SRT coating might increase the durability of garments that protect against biological and chemical agents, Demirel said. Interweaving multiple layers of SRT proteins with other compounds or technology could even result in flexible optical displays or “smart” clothes that shield people from airborne pollutants.

Another benefit SRT materials have over their petroleum-based counterparts? How cheaply and easily they can be produced using renewable materials. Squid participation isn’t required, either. The proteins can be coaxed out of genetically modified bacteria using sugar, water, oxygen and a process not unlike fermentation.

While Demirel expects SRT-based prototypes to be more widely available in the near future, more development is still required.

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