The worm that turned: the jaw of the sand worm helps material adapt to changing environments

Natural abilities of the marine worm have inspired the production of self-regulating responsive material

Alexander Semenov/Wikimedia CommonsThe Nereis virens worm inspired new research out of the MIT Laboratory for Atomistic and Molecular Mechanics. Its jaw is made of soft organic material, but is as strong as harder materials such as human dentin.

Robots could soon be controlled by engineers using a gel inspired by worms.

The material expands and contracts based on changing pH levels and ion concentrations. It was developed by studying how the jaw of Nereis virens, a sand worm, forms and adapts in different environments.

The pH- and ion-sensitive material can respond and react to its environment, which could be useful for the active control of the motion or deformation of actuators for soft robotics and sensors without using external power supply or complex electronic controlling devices.

Markus J. Buehler, McAfee, Professor of Engineering and head of CEE, said: “The ability of dramatically altering the material properties, by changing its hierarchical structure starting at the chemical level, offers exciting new opportunities to tune the material, and to build upon the natural material design towards new engineering applications.”

The protein material, was designed and modelled at the Laboratory for Atomistic and Molecular Mechanics (LAMM), Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE), and synthesised in collaboration with the Air Force Research Lab (AFRL) at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio.