Sea snail could hold the key to biodegradable bullet-proof vests


In the UK, researchers have created an aquatic snail-inspired biomaterial so strong it could one day serve as a renewable alternative to Kevlar. 

The breakthrough has its origin in 2015 work characterizing the tooth material of limpets, which has tensile strength even stronger than spider silk. Atomic-level analysis revealed a dense network of chitin fibers interspersed with iron-containing geothite crystals.  Now, the team at University of Portsmouth has achieved a similar structure with serum-coated glass, chitin, and iron oxide. 

“I spent six months setting up this process,” says Dr. Robin Rumney, lead author of the research. “I went through every kind of permutation I could think of for what the cells might need and how they’d grow. It’s very different to growing bacteria or cancer cells which commonly grow in a lab environment, so we had to work out from scratch what would work.”

Rumney says the material could replace fully synthetic composites like Kevlar—the material used in bullet-proof vests—without the use of toxic starter materials. “Here we have a material which potentially is much more sustainable in terms of how it’s sourced and made, and at the end of its life can be biodegraded,” Rumney adds.  “Our next step is to find other ways of getting the iron formation occurring, so we’re studying the secretions of the limpet cells to better understand that. If it works really well, then we already have the gene readouts of the organ so we can lift the genes of interest out, and hopefully put them into bacteria or yeast to grow them at scale.”

The research was published in the journal Nature Communications.