Biomimicry: is there anything it can’t do? The latest example of science imitating nature comes from researchers at MIT who have discovered that the shell of a tiny deep-sea snail could give way to tough, lightweight body armor. The snail in question — Crysomallon squamiferum, or the scaly-foot gastropod — was first discovered in 1999. It possesses a unique three-layered shell that can easily fend off attacks from crabs.

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Christine Ortiz and her colleagues at MIT simulated a virtual crab attack on the snail to figure out how its shell works. They discovered that the outer layer is made up of particles of iron sulphide embedded in an organic matrix that absorbs energy from attacks — and even cracks slightly — but doesn’t form large cracks. The spongy middle layer absorbs yet more energy from crab attacks.

Believe it or not, the snail’s defensive techniques could potentially translate to human body armor coated in iron-based nanoparticles that absorb energy and avoid large cracks. The same technology could be applied to helmets, motorbikes, and even Arctic pipelines that sometimes collide with icebergs.

The scaly-foot gastropod isn’t the only species that Ortiz thinks could inspire body armor. The MIT researcher is also looking at other marine molluscs, including sea urchins, chitons, and the Senegal bichir.

+ Christine Ortiz

Via New Scientist