Scales are the material of choice for animals from pangolins to fish: They’re customizable, water-friendly, strong but flexible, and easy to fix when damaged.

Scientists would like to recreate this unique structure—they can imagine uses from medical implants to flexible electronics—but it’s proved difficult using non-organic materials. But researchers with the University of Chicago have published a concept to use a naturally occurring mineral called calcite to “grow” scales that can attach to soft materials. The setup could one day serve as waterproof implants to reinforce bones or joints.

An illustration shows how the “dumbbells,” (in grey) hook into the layer of blue silicone on one end and grow into the layer of skin on top, which fixes the implant in place.Illustration byTian lab/University of Chicago

Currently surgeons use structures made out of synthetic polymers, but while they’re easy to sculpt, they can degrade over time. For a replacement, the UChicago team instead started with two materials that are compatible with the body.

Silicone is a flexible, rubbery material often used in surgical implants because it doesn’t react with human tissue. Calcite is a common hard mineral that many clams and oysters use in their shells (brittlestars, related to starfish, use calcite in their eyes, as did ancient trilobites). Luckily, one of the specialties of Asst. Prof. Bozhi Tian’s chemistry lab is combining hard and soft materials at the molecular level.

Source: UC