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Borrowing Nature’s Polymers

Los Alamos scientists are learning to mimic some of nature’s greatest materials-science inventions—and improve upon them
April 24, 2015
Borrowing Nature’s Polymers

Natural polymers have some remarkable properties, such as the optical iridescence of keratin, the extreme elasticity of resilin, and the dramatic tensile strength of silk.

“Suppose you could combine the optical glow from a bioluminescent fish with the pressure sensitivity of animal skins,” says Martinez. “You can imagine engineering a new kind of flexible touch-screen that responds to different amounts of pressure by emitting different kinds of light. The possibilities are nearly endless.”

Polymers weren’t invented by people. Nature has been using them much longer than humanity has, encoding them in the DNA of living organisms and assembling them from amino acids. In fact, evolution happened upon a number of natural polymers that are in many ways superior to the synthetic ones invented by human engineers. Some are critical to the function of the human body, such as the elastin and collagen that keep our skin and joints flexible. Others are only found elsewhere, such as plant cellulose, spider silk, sheep wool, or bioluminescent proteins from jellyfish. They are in blood vessels and bones, toenails and teeth, stalks and stems, hooves and horns, feathers and fur. These natural polymers are valuable in their own right, but they may also provide key inspiration to help scientists and engineers to combine or improve upon them for human use. Modern genetic tools stand poised to create perhaps hundreds of new, highly advanced synthetic polymers for mechanical and biological applications of all kinds.