Human Cells Engineered To Camouflage Like A Squid

Dean Burton
A team of researchers have engineered human cells to change colour like squid.
Purple and brown squid
Engineering Human Cells From Squid. Photo: Diane Picchiottino | Unsplash

Squids are fascinating creatures that have evolved unique and effective methods of defence and camouflage. One of the most impressive of these is the ability to change the colour and pattern of their skin to blend in with their surroundings. This allows them to hide extremely effectively and surprise their prey when hunting.

Their colour-changing abilities (and those of their fellow cephalopods, octopus and cuttlefish) are more sophisticated than any other found in the animal world.

Researchers have been studying this phenomenon for decades, but it wasn’t until recently that they made a breakthrough using an unlikely source: human cells.

The Study

Analysing Cells. Photo: CDC | Unsplash

For many years, Alon Gorodetsky, Ph.D., and his research group at The University of California, Irvine (UCI), have been working on materials inspired by squid.

Despite the amount of research already undertaken on the species, how squid can become reversibly transparent has remained largely unclear, because up until now, researchers could not culture their cells in a lab environment.

This is all about to change as the team of researchers reports the findings of their most recent study at a meeting of the American Chemical Society

“So, the significance of our research is to take the light reflecting or light scattering capabilities of squid skin cells, and then translate them to mammalian cells to better understand how squid skin cells work” Gorodetsky explained.

“We had this crazy idea to see whether we could capture some aspect of the ability of squid skin tissues to change transparency within human cell cultures,”

Through their work, the team discovered that the way squids change their skin colour is remarkably similar to the way human skin cells produce colour. They found that specialized cells called chromatophores, which contain pigments that give the skin its colour, are controlled by muscles that stretch and contract to change the shape of the cell. This change in shape alters the way light is reflected by the pigment, producing the squid’s characteristic colour and pattern changes.

What This Means For The Future

An Important Breakthrough. Photo: Masaaki Komori | Unsplash

The team seem to have been able to replicate the tunable transparency of squid cells in mammalian cells, which can now be cultured and analysed further. 

At the very least, this now allows scientists to shed light on basic squid biology but the team are hopeful that these new findings will lead to better ways to image many other cell types. 

This breakthrough has important implications for both biology and technology. Understanding how squids control their skin colour could lead to new ways of designing camouflage materials for military and civilian use, something scientists are now edging closer and closer to achieving.

The researchers are now optimizing their technique to design better cellular imaging strategies based on the cells’ intrinsic optical properties. 

This study shows that even seemingly unrelated fields like human cell biology can provide valuable insights into the workings of other organisms. By studying the similarities and differences between species, we can deepen our understanding of the natural world and develop new technologies that benefit both humans and the environment.


1 comment

  1. I really enjoyed your article and this is a fascinating area of research. If scientists use these discoveries to enhance their already high precision cellular imaging, it could lead to an even better understanding of biology at a cellular level, and squids would become our best friends. This in itself, could lead to future scientific breakthroughs. For example, better imaging could help scientists regenerate cartilage with stem cells. From my understanding there is no way to regenerate cartilage in humans just yet although there have been some breakthroughs with microfracture techniques in osteoarthritic mice.

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