As detailed in their study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, a team of scientist at Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) have discovered how the sea cucumber can rapidly change the stiffness of its body.
Sea cucumbers, which belong to a group of marine invertebrates that includes starfish, have evolved to have collagenous tissues with a unique property.
The collagen, known as mutable collagenous tissue (MCT), allows the sea cucumber to “turn to jelly” to avoid predators. Until now, the mechanism by which the animal changes its stiffness was unknown.
Lead author of the study, Dr Himadri Gupta from the QMUL Institute of Bioengineering, believes MCT could be used as a basis for developing novel biomaterials for applications in cosmetics and medicine.
“The sea cucumber’s MCT may serve as a template for bio-inspired materials, which can mimic its remarkable properties. These could be useful in flexible scaffolds for tissue engineering, cosmetic treatments against skin ageing, implantable biosensors, and materials for soft robotics,” said Dr Gupta.
Using X-ray technology, the researchers analysed the body wall of sea cucumbers.
They identified that the ability to change the shape of the body wall is down the changes in the stiffness of the matrix between individual muscle fibrils (fibres) – rather than the properties of the fibrils themselves.
“Sea cucumbers are amazingly flexible and this study shows that their ability to shape-shift is not a result of any changes within the collagen fibrils themselves, but in the interbrillar scaffold that cross-links with them,” said co-author of the study, Professor Maurice Elphick from QMUL’s School of Biological and Chemical Sciences.
QMUL researchers now hope to isolate the molecules that lead to these properties in the sea cucumber’s body wall.
This in turn could help understand how to apply this research in medicine and cosmetics, they added.