The breakthrough study conducted by United Kingdom's University of Kent researchers, led by Professors Ben Goult and Jen Hiscock, indicated that the protective material known as talin could ensure the safety of military and police personnel, as well as guard airplanes and spacecraft against flying debris.
Named TSAM (Talin Shock Absorbing Materials), this novel protein-based family of materials represents the first known example of a synthetic biology material capable of absorbing supersonic projectile impacts.
The research titled "Next generation protein-based materials capture and preserve projectiles from supersonic impacts" adapted the ends of three switches and then linked them together using water and a gelling agent to form a mesh. When something hits it, the energy unfolds the modified talin rather than converting into heat.
A piston fired tiny particles of basalt and larger pieces of shrapnel at a sample placed in front of an aluminum plate during the experiments. They found that even at supersonic speeds of a mile a second, twice as fast as firearm bullets, the gel stopped them in their tracks.
The recent discovery opens the door for the development of next-generation bulletproof armor and projectile capture materials to enable the study of hypervelocity impacts in space and the upper atmosphere.
"Each molecule has 13 'switches' that can unfold when force is applied," Goult said in a statement. "These refold after the force is removed – enabling shock absorption...protecting our cells from the effects of large force changes."
The team compared the armor that could be developed with TSAM with the traditional body armor.
The current one has a bulky ceramic face with a fiber-reinforced composite backing, which may be ineffective against kinetic energy and can cause physical trauma to the body behind the armor. Also, the existing version of body armor frequently sustains permanent damage after a hit, preventing continued usage due to reduced structural integrity.
On the other hand, a possible talin-based armor "offers a lighter, more durable armor shielding the wearer from a wider spectrum of injuries – including those brought on by shock," Goult said.
TSAM may also replace gels used in the industry, which are prone to melting due to temperature increases brought on by projectile impact. The team is already working with a company to develop the material as a component of body armor.
Talin, considered an essential integrin-binding protein, was found to be the main reason why muscle and tendon connections last a lifetime by international research in 2019.
In the study, researchers from the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry in Germany used fruit flies to determine how this particular human protein controls mechanical stress on muscle-tendon attachments. (Related: Biologists identify the protein that makes tendon-muscle connections last a lifetime.)
The researchers inserted a fluorescent force sensor into the protein talin to investigate molecular forces using microscopy methods. They found that despite being abundantly present in muscle-tendon attachments, only a small portion of talin molecules deal with mechanical forces at the same time. These molecules dynamically share the mechanical load to provide support and stability to muscle-tendon attachments.
The study showed that less than 15 percent of the protein molecules "felt" measurable forces in developing muscle attachments in an intact organism. It was a pleasant surprise because previous studies had shown that 70 percent of all talin molecules are exposed to high forces in so-called focal adhesions when cells are placed on hard plastic or glass substrates in the laboratory.
The scientists then reduced the number of talin molecules present in the flight muscles of fruit flies using molecular genetic methods.
While the flies were still able to survive after the intervention, their muscle-tendon connections ruptured during the first flight attempts. These results demonstrate that connections between cells must dynamically adapt to the needs of each tissue to ensure lifelong function.
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