Bugs are one of the most frequently imitated living species in science. Even the word "bug" is borrowed to describe software or hardware defects, spying devices or cult automobiles, such as the Volkswagen Beetle. The latest mimicry of these fascinating creatures has been developed by Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard. Researchers Javier Fernandez and Donald Ingber are inspired by the exoskeletons of bugs in order to produce sturdy, biodegradable plastics.
The conventional raw material of plastics is oil. It can take several thousands of years for these materials to degrade completely. This makes plastics highly contaminating. External skeletons of bugs, on the other hand, can degrade completely in a few years. On top of the flexibility, these exoskeletons provide protection as well. That's why you hear a crunching noise when you crush a bug. Exoskeletons are made out of "cuticle", which is a compound of the polymer "chitin" and a substance called "resilin".
Researchers Fernandez and Ingber imitated chitin in order to produce durable, biodegradable plastics. The artificial version uses a strong polysaccharide named chitosan, which can be derived from shrimp, snail and clam shells. The researches then layered them together with a silk-derived protein called fibroin, using the same structural method with that of bug exoskeletons. The materials required are easy to obtain, which makes the new plastic, named "shrilk", cheap to produce.
Shrilk is already approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The material could be used for medical purposes in the future, but currently it is still being explored in the lab.