Scientists Create Synthetic Elastic Protein

Fleas can jump and cicadas can sing because of an elastic protein called resilin. Now, for the first time, scientists have made it in the lab. It's extremely elastic, and scientists say it could be used to replace stretchy tissues of the body, like elastin in arteries.

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Insects can perform amazing feats. For instance, a flea can jump a hundred times its own body length. The trick comes from a kind of insect rubber called resilin. Now scientists have figured out how to make this material in the lab. NPR's Nell Boyce reports.

NELL BOYCE reporting:

Chris Elvin recently came across some historic experiments that he thought were really cool. They were odd studies done in the 1960s, tedious dissections of tiny tendons from dragonfly wings. They showed that the wings could buzz, in part, because of a remarkably springy protein called resilin.

Mr. CHRIS ELVIN (Scientist): It just amazed me that here was this material that displayed almost perfect elasticity.

BOYCE: Elvin is a biochemist who studies insect pests. He works at a research institute called CSIRO Livestock Industries in Australia. He knew that other insects used resilin as well, like fleas and cicadas. And then he saw that another research group had discovered a fruit fly gene that makes resilin. Elvin got excited because he realized he could try to make his own.

Mr. ELVIN: I really just wanted to know if we could understand just how this stuff works.

BOYCE: Elvin's team took a piece of the gene and inserted it into bacteria. The bacteria then churned out the protein as a thick, straw-colored liquid. It took a year to figure out how to make it solid, but he finally hit on a simple trick. He adds two chemicals and zaps it with a bright light from an overhead projector.

Mr. ELVIN: Then it turns into an opaque, rubbery solid material which you can stretch. It looks just like a rubber band at that point.

BOYCE: Tests showed it was way more springy than a rubber band and even more bouncy than the rubber in a superball. The results appear in the journal Nature. Elvin says doctors might someday use this material to replace spinal discs or blood vessels or anything that requires both flexibility and durability. But this new material has captured the attention of more than just the medical world.

Mr. ELVIN: People are fascinated. You take my daughter. She gave a talk at kindy a couple of weeks ago on what Daddy does at work. So, you know, four-year-olds can understand this stuff, and I think that's really good. It's an intriguing thing. `Gee, fleas jump. How do they do that?' That's basically the question.

BOYCE: His lab is now working on making resilin using the genes of other insects, like bees and the spittle bug, which can jump even farther than a flea. Nell Boyce, NPR News.

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