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Scientists Develop Snake-Inspired Artificial Skin That Can 'Feel' and Restore Temperature Sensing

Feb 15, 2017 04:29 AM EST

Scientists may have finally cracked the code to restoring temperature sensing with the help of an unexpected guest: a pit viper. In a surprising twist, the new material appears to be something people have been encountering in their everyday life.

Scientists and engineers at ETH Zurich and Caltech have used the same qualities helping pit vipers sense their pray to create a kind of artificial skin that is capable of detecting temperature changes. Caltech's Chiara Daraio and her team explained the process that uses the very same jellifying agent that makes our beloved jam.

According to Science News Journal, Daraio and her team have created a new material called pectin (a long chain molecule found in plant cell walls) that shows visible electronic responses to temperature changes. Their original research was actually intended for synthetic wood.

This new discovery opted Daraio and her colleagues to further test the molecule, and to surprising results. According to their Caltech study, the researchers were able to create a flexible and thin film of pectin with water. The resulting product is only 20 micrometers thick, which is almost as thick as human hair. The material is described to be "weakly-bonded" and has its own set of calcium ions.

The magic happens when temperature changes. This is because by the time temperature rises, the bonds "unzip" the double strands and the calcium ions are released as positively charged. This prompts the material to give an electrical signal to the detector attached to it.

Read: No More Scars: Researchers Crack Code to Regenerate Human Skin

Unfortunately, the scientists are still not entirely sure about the full extent of the machinations of the artificial skin as this is not part of their original objective. However, they concluded that electrical resistance may be affected because of the calcium ions themselves or their mobility.

They speculated this because of the similarities of how the skin of animals, such as the pit viper, detect heat. The study noted that vipers have the ability to detect radiated heat through their pit organs. Thir organs contain ion channels in the cell membrane of sensory nerve fibers, which expand as temperature increases. This helps vipers hunt for their prey regardless of how well they hide.

If Daraio's discovery is improved upon, there is potential for the artificial skin to be used in the realm of prosthetics. People with disabilities can have their "sense" of temperature restored with the help of these artificial limbs.

Aside from this, Daraio speculates that the artificial skin can be applied to the medical field as well, such as creating special temperature-sensitive bandages or other laboratory equipment.

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