Squid Parts Help Make Self-Healing Materials

A special coating might one day repair ragged clothes with a little pressure, heat and water.
Karin Heineman, Executive Producer

(Inside Science) -- Got a ripped pair of jeans or T-shirt, but can’t sew worth a dime? What if you could mend a tear in a few seconds with just water? Scientists are working on a coating that might one day repair ragged clothes and other materials with a little pressure, heat and H2O.

What might look like food prep for an order of calamari, isn’t. This species of squid have teeth, yes, teeth! -- and scientists use them for research.

“In each of the tentacles and arms inside of the suction cups there are these teeth ring structures that they use to catch the prey. They not only apply suction but they also bite,” said Abdon Pena-Francesch, a doctoral candidate at Pennsylvania State University.

It turns out that squid teeth contain a protein with soft and hard parts that work together to help make the teeth strong and flexible.

In the squid, if the teeth are broken -- they can heal themselves. The soft parts in the proteins help the broken proteins fuse back together in water, while the hard parts help to reinforce the structure and keep it strong.

It’s these unique properties that inspired scientists to develop a coating made from the squid teeth proteins.

“This protein, what’s special about this material, is that with a little bit of pressure, with a little bit of heat, you can repair any damage,” said Pena-Francesch.

When a fabric covered in the coating is then soaked in water, the proteins move towards any rips or tears in the coating and link parts of the coating and fabric together to make repairs. Scientists also help the repair process along a little.

“You break it into two, you put it back together with a little bit of heat and pressure, it’s as good as new,” said Pena-Francesch.

But don’t expect to see self-healing jeans and T-shirts at the mall just yet. Scientists need to work on large-scale production of the squid protein. They’ve already found ways to eliminate the need for using real squid.

“We can grow these proteins synthetically in the lab,” said Pena-Francesch.

These ground up lab-made proteins work just as well as the real thing. Scientists also envision self-healing materials for hazardous materials suits -- where rips or tears could be a real danger, exposing people to hazardous things; a suit that repairs itself could help keep people safe.

Science and nature coming together to help patch things up.

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Karin Heineman is the executive producer of Inside Science TV.