(CN) – Microplastics are found everywhere. The 5-millimeter pieces of plastic, roughly the size of a grain of rice or smaller, have shown up in the soil, in the air and through the entire range of creatures, including humans.
“Plastic has provided humans with a lot of opportunity, particularly in terms of mobility, as they are found in cars and airplanes, but also in textiles, construction and packaging,” said Melik Demirel, a material scientist with Penn State University. “But what we are realizing is that with these benefits there comes a huge environmental cost and it’s unsustainable.”
In a review published in scientific journal Frontiers of Chemistry on Thursday, Demirel said he and his fellow researchers may have hit upon an unlikely solution to the problem of plastics, both great and small, infiltrating the environment and causing pollution.
The solution comes in the form of a protein produced by a squid.
“Squid proteins can be used to produce next generation materials for an array of fields including energy and biomedicine, as well as the security and defense sector,” Demirel said. “We reviewed the current knowledge on squid ring teeth-based materials, which are an excellent alternative to plastics because they are eco-friendly and environmentally sustainable.”
For the past 30 years Demirel has been studying proteins of all kinds, testing their ability to function as biopolymers, which can be more properly thought of naturally occurring plastics.
“Certain proteins are similar to plastic in their molecular architecture, their modular ability, elasticity and high mechanical properties,” Demirel said.
The benefits of biopolymers in general, and the protein that originates in the ringed teeth of the squid’s predatory arms in particular, include their biodegradability, eco-friendliness and their amenability to large scale production given that squid protein is created using laboratory culture methods.
This means environmental problems such as the inability to recycle about 95 percent of the cotton produced because of the presence of micro-polyester products could be addressed.
“It would help us minimize land and water usage that it takes to produce cotton,” Demirel said.
Demiril also said that finding material solutions in nature takes advantage of the remarkable range of beneficial properties that nature has embedded in various proteins.
“Nature produces a variety of smart materials capable of environmental sensing, self-healing and exceptional mechanical function,” Demirel said.
Squid protein, which is taken from the circulatory appendages near the suction cups of squid, contains the elasticity, flexibility and most of all strength that are found in plastics and have made the material so useful to human enterprise.
But squid protein also carries an additional benefit of being self-healing, while conducting heat and electricity efficiently, meaning it could not only replace plastic use but expand what is possible.
Also, the use of genetically modified bacteria means that researchers don’t have to use actual squid for the production of the material, meaning the discovery does not necessarily have to lead to a depletion of a natural resource.
Demirel said he is currently busy using laboratory methods to invent proteins not found in nature to improve upon natural materials.
“There is a big potential in front of us and we are moving in a good direction,” he said.