How strong can a muscle ever get? Can it have more endurance than metal? Can it be sturdier than Kevlar? While you might be inclined to answer the above in the negative, please pause, for scientists have succeeded in developing synthetic muscle that’s stronger than Kevlar. How about that for a flex?
The science and other stuff to know
The breakthrough was achieved by researchers at the McKelvey School of Engineering at Washington University, and the findings were reported in a study published in Nature Communications in August.
Despite several attempts, direct microbial production of sturdy polymeric materials that have high-performing mechanical abilities has met limited success, the researchers said. The main reason for this limited success has been the complexity of naturally occurring materials, which are protein based and derive their abilities from ultra-high molecular weight (UHMW) proteins. However, these UHMW proteins are extremely difficult to imitate synthetically.
But the team at Washington University succeeded in devising a process wherein they polymerized proteins inside engineered microbes to produce Titin, which was, in turn, spun into fibers, GEN News reported.
In their findings, the scientists said that “by harnessing the biosynthetic power of microbes, this work has produced a novel high-performance material that recaptures not only the most desirable mechanical properties of natural muscle fibers (i.e., high damping capacity and rapid mechanical recovery) but also high strength and toughness, higher even than that of many manmade and natural high-performance fibers”.
Existing polymers used in various applications and industries are non-biodegradable and derived from petroleum through processes that involve toxic solvents and byproducts, the scientists said in the study. Therefore, the development of this organic and renewable polymer that has all the benefits of natural as well as synthetic polymers and is energy efficient to produce is no small feat.
Researchers believe that synthetic muscle fibers could be used in a wide variety of sustainable and environmentally friendly industrial applications, including textiles, biomedicine, and tissue engineering.
In a world where it takes up to 1,800 gallons of water to produce a single pair of jeans, the development of such environmentally safe processes that provide high-strength materials for industrial applications is a great step forward.
Scientists said materials produced via microbial processes could potentially lead to the development of more high-performance materials. “Thus, this work represents a significant expansion of the range of products accessible through engineered microbial synthesis, moving from primarily small molecules, peptides, therapeutic proteins, and industrial enzymes toward effective direct production of high-performance materials” the researchers reported in their findings.
“It is likely that the biosynthetic strategy developed here can be applied to other proteins with robust folding properties, yielding novel, high-performance materials with an expanded range of properties and offering an increasing variety of sustainable alternatives to traditional petroleum-based polymers,” the scientists wrote.