Ferroelectric switching, a response to an electric field in which a molecule switches from having a positive to a negative charge, happens in the biological protein elastin, the study showed.

This switching process in synthetic materials serves as a way to power computer memory chips, display screens and sensors. "When we looked at the smallest structural unit of the biological tissue and how it was organised into a larger protein fibre, we then were able to see similarities to the classic ferroelectric model found in solids," said Jiangyu Li, professor at University of Washington in US.

The researchers used small samples of elastin taken from a pig's aorta and poled the tissues using an electric field at high temperatures. They then measured the current with the poling field removed and found that the current switched direction when the poling electric field was switched, a sign of ferroelectricity.

They did the same thing at room temperature using a laser as the heat source, and the current also switched directions. Then, the researchers tested for this behaviour on the smallest-possible unit of elastin, called tropoelastin, and again observed the phenomenon. They concluded that this switching property is ‘intrinsic’ to the molecular make-up of elastin.

The study appeared in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

(Agencies)

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