New material inspired by the gelatinous jaw of a sea worm


Researchers have developed a new material that can adapt to changing environments and was inspired by the strength of the jaws of a marine worm. 

Although it has a Jell-O like consistency, it can be as strong as calcified mineral found in human teeth. 

The material could be used to make devices that work as muscles in soft robots, or for autonomous sensors that don’t need external power supplies.  

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The Nereis virens worm's jaw has a texture similar to gelatin - but if its environment changes, it can become hard. It has distinctive traits including a long body, many parapopdia (fleshy protrusions along the body) and blue head with two large pincer teeth

The Nereis virens worm's jaw has a texture similar to gelatin - but if its environment changes, it can become hard. It has distinctive traits including a long body, many parapopdia (fleshy protrusions along the body) and blue head with two large pincer teeth

The Nereis virens worm’s jaw has a texture similar to gelatin – but if its environment changes, it can become hard. It has distinctive traits including a long body, many parapopdia (fleshy protrusions along the body) and blue head with two large pincer teeth

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology studied how the jaw of the Nereis virens worm forms and adapts to changing environments.  

Nereis virens burrows in wet sand and mud, and it’s commonly referred to as a sand worm

The worm’s jaw has a texture similar to gelatin – but if its environment changes, it can become hard. 

The new hydrogel material becomes hard or flexible depending on its environment – just like the worm’s jaw. 

Nereis virens' jaw 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

Nereis virens' jaw 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

Nereis virens’ jaw 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 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,’ said Dr Francisco Martín-Martínez, a chemical engineer researcher at MIT and a co-author of the study

The researchers found that the amino acids in the protein bind strongly to metal ions in the environment, and the reaction between them changes the overall shape of the protein.

But when environmental conditions change back again, these bonds are reversible and break, so the protein changes shape, becoming more flexible again. 

Pictured left is the hydrogel, swollen at a low pH (acidic) of a salt solution. Pictured right is the gel exposed to a high concentration salt solution

Pictured left is the hydrogel, swollen at a low pH (acidic) of a salt solution. Pictured right is the gel exposed to a high concentration salt solution

Pictured left is the hydrogel, swollen at a low pH (acidic) of a salt solution. Pictured right is the gel exposed to a high concentration salt solution

‘When we change the ions of the environment and the salt concentration, the material expands or contracts,’ said Dr Martín-Martínez. 

So depending on the ions and pH levels (how acidic or basic an aqueous environment is) in the environment, the protein material, called Nvjp-1, expands and contracts into different geometric patterns. 

The researchers found that the material either spirals or take a Cypraea shell-like shape when the pH levels are changed.  

The structure of the protein is strengthened in particular when the environment contains zinc metal ions and certain pH levels. 

Sandworms make up a large part of the live sea-bait industry, and some sandworms are commercially grown to fulfill the industry's needs

Sandworms make up a large part of the live sea-bait industry, and some sandworms are commercially grown to fulfill the industry's needs

Sandworms make up a large part of the live sea-bait industry, and some sandworms are commercially grown to fulfill the industry’s needs

The researchers also created a model that’s capable of predicting the mechanical behavior of the material in different environments. 

The researchers simulated, using supercomputers, how the compound behaves, to improve it and to design its molecular structure. 

The material has the potential to be used the development of soft robots, sensors and autonomous structures. 

‘Most soft robotics require power supply to drive the motion and to be controlled by complex electronic devices,’ said Dr Zhao Qin, a researcher at MIT and co-author of the study. 

MIT Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering researchers Dr Francisco Martín-Martínez and Dr Zhao Qin sketch the molecular background of their research on Nereis virens, a marine worm with a strong and adaptable jaw 

MIT Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering researchers Dr Francisco Martín-Martínez and Dr Zhao Qin sketch the molecular background of their research on Nereis virens, a marine worm with a strong and adaptable jaw 

MIT Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering researchers Dr Francisco Martín-Martínez and Dr Zhao Qin sketch the molecular background of their research on Nereis virens, a marine worm with a strong and adaptable jaw 

‘Our work toward the designing of the multi-functional material may provide another pathway to directly control the material property and deformation without electronic devices.’ 

Because the material was developed in collaboration with the US Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), the details of how it’s made are not publicly available, said Dr Dr Martín-Martínez.

Dr Martín Martínez, who specialized in the design and modelling of materials, believes that most of the problems being addressed with technology ‘have already been solved by nature, almost always in a much better way than we humans can develop, so for us it is a great source of inspiration,’ he said.  

THE NEREIS VIRENS WORM: FACTS

Nereis virens is a a sandworm that burrows in wet sand and mud.   

Sandworms make up a large part of the live sea-bait industry, and some sandworms are commercially grown to fulfill the industry’s needs.

They eat seaweed and microorganisms, and have distinctive traits including long bodies, many parapopdia (fleshy protrusions along the body) and blue heads with two large pincer teeth.

The worm’s jaw has a texture similar to gelatin – but if its environment changes, it can become hard.   

Its jaw 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. 

Nereis virens worms eat seaweed and microorganisms, and have distinctive traits including long bodies, many parapopdia (fleshy protrusions along the body) and blue heads with two large pincer teeth

Nereis virens worms eat seaweed and microorganisms, and have distinctive traits including long bodies, many parapopdia (fleshy protrusions along the body) and blue heads with two large pincer teeth

Nereis virens worms eat seaweed and microorganisms, and have distinctive traits including long bodies, many parapopdia (fleshy protrusions along the body) and blue heads with two large pincer teeth



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