How camouflage may make better pacemakers

reflectin protein useful for biological implants
Image by Nick Hobgood

Nature has had millions of years to come up with solutions to biological problems. We can learn a lot from nature if we just stop and look. Squids and octopuses are masters of camouflage – they can change shape and colour in seconds. That ability is, in part, thanks to a protein called reflectin, which is expressed in the skin of the common pencil squid.

Scientists investigating reflectin noticed that it has a curious property: it conducts protons (positively charged particles). The reason this is so important is because in the human body signals and messages are sent between cells and tissues using mainly positively charged ions like calcium, sodium and potassium. But most medical implants like pacemakers actually work by conducting negative electrons. This means that these implanted machines don’t always work as well as they should. Reflectin is also soft and can be layered onto flexible material like silicon to make implants which mould perfectly to where they are needed.

This is yet another example of how investigating one thing, in this case how squids can change colour, can lead to a biomedical breakthrough. It’s such a shame that research funding is only focused on work that can be immediately translated into the clinic. We’re going to miss a lot of information this way.

The Scientific Paper:
Ordinario et al. Bulk protonic conductivity in a cephalopod structural protein. Nature Chemistry. 2014 

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