Alon Gorodetsky, an assistant professor of chemical engineering and materials science at the University of California Irvine, holds up a vial containing reflectin, a protein found in squid skin that could power biomedical and other electronic devices.

Alon Gorodetsky, an assistant professor of chemical engineering and materials science at the University of California Irvine, holds up a vial containing reflectin, a protein found in squid skin that could power biomedical and other electronic devices.

Credit: Steve Zylius / UC Irvine

Scientists have long probed the inner workings of biological organisms, bringing Mother Nature's unexpected technologies to light. In an earlier post, I wrote about a finding by researchers at Cambridge University, in the United Kingdom, of natural mechanical gears in the interlocking legs of the issus hopping insect.

Recently, chemical engineers at the University of California Irvine (UCI) discovered that a protein in the skin of the common pencil squid, Loliginidae, can conduct electricity. Called reflectin, the protein enables the squid to change color and redirect light. The researchers believe that it also can deliver insights into the fabrication of medical devices and other electronic technologies that communicate intimately with the human anatomy.

"Nature is really good at doing certain things that we sometimes find incredibly difficult,” said Alon Gorodetsky, the research lead and an assistant professor of chemical engineering and materials science at UCI, in a press release. Because the protein derives from a living organism, it sends signals using ions and (positively charged) protons while man-made, bio-compatible products use (negatively charged) electrons.

"Perhaps nature has already optimized reflectin to conduct protons," Gorodetsky said, "so we can learn from this protein and take advantage of natural design principles.”

Reflectin is intriguing to the researchers because of its flexibility and bio-adaptability compared to conventional electronics that are rigid and not easily integrated in the human body. For this reason, the protein is viewed as a bridge that can connect biological and electronic realms. "We plan to use reflectin as a template for the development of improved ion- and proton-conducting materials," Gorodetsky said. "We hope to evolve this protein for optimum functionality in specific devices—such as transistors used for interfacing with neural cells—similar to how proteins evolve for specific tasks in nature.”

Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.