A new generation of materials inspired by teeth

Coiled limpet tongue light microscopy

Source: © Steve Lowry/Science Photo Library

Ian Le Guillou finds that some of nature’s toughest structures are helping scientists to develop new fibres that could revolutionise fabrics

There is a growing demand for new materials that can replace the artificial fibres and components that pollute the environment. However, it is difficult to meet the requirements of both sustainability and durability. To create the materials of the future, scientists are drawing inspiration from the extraordinary structures found in teeth across the animal kingdom. From the depths of the ocean to our own mouths, teeth can tackle the toughest challenges in a variety of ways.

The toughness of a limpet’s teeth is a suitable match for its harsh existence. Spending its life firmly attached to a rock, the limpet continuously scrapes the stone to detach its diet of algae and microorganisms. Resembling a nightmarish vision from Salvador Dali, the teeth grow in a conveyor belt along the limpet’s tongue, known as a radula. The millimetre-long teeth are mostly made of iron oxide in the form of goethite held in place by a scaffold of chitin, a polysaccharide that makes up the shells of many invertebrates, such as crabs and insects.

These bio-inspired materials can also meet the challenges of sustainability that plague many other fibres. Chitin is thought to be the second most abundant polysaccharide in nature, after only cellulose, with a billion tons produced in the biosphere each year.