In Iraq, Afghanistan, and other war zones, the U.S. military faces increasingly lethal weapons each year. So MIT scientists are researching new ways to protect U.S. forces with high-tech battle suits that could withstand brutal attacks — and they're turning to an ancient African fish to help them do that.
WBUR health/science reporter Sacha Pfeiffer visited MIT to learn how a 96-million-year-old creature can help twenty-first century soldiers.
(SOUND OF AQUARIUM BUBBLING)
In a windowless basement laboratory, a drab gray fish that resembles a snake noses around the gravel in a bubbling aquarium. This one lives in captivity in Cambridge, but its ancestors date to prehistoric times, and it can still be found in freshwater pools in Africa. Juha Song, a PhD student in the lab, points out its unusual body.
JUHA SONG: You can see the bony fish scale.
REPORTER: He looks a little bit like an eel
SONG: Yeah, that's true, yeah.
REPORTER: A little bit like a shark because it has dorsal fins.
SONG: Uh huh.
REPORTER: And it's got a scaly body. Now if we touched it would it feel harder than regular fish?
SONG: Yeah, it's a little bit hard.
Its Latin name is polypterus senegalus, but it's usually just called the dinosaur eel. It gets its nickname from its primitive look. Unlike modern fish with soft bodies, this one has a scaly exoskeleton that functions as armor.
Throughout its existence, the dinosaur eel has relied on its hard exterior to protect it from predators with deadly teeth. The vicious bites dinosaur eels withstand in the wild are similar to the bullets and shrapnel that can injure soldiers in battle.
CHRISTINE ORTIZ: The bite is a penetrating impact, and so there can be conditions that soldiers face, obviously, which undergo penetrating impacts.
Christine Ortiz is an MIT professor who studies natural materials. She's especially interested in natural materials that can sustain heavy loads, such as bones and sea shells. The dinosaur eel's tough exoskeleton falls in that category.
By studying the fish's armored scales, Ortiz is helping develop better body armor. The US Army funds her research.
ORTIZ: The application that we're thinking about most is obviously protective applications for soldiers' armor and that could be personal armor, body armor, vehicle armor, structural armor.
Ortiz is researching the thickness of the scales, the way they're layered, how they crack when bitten, and other qualities that help dinosaur eels survive in the wild. If those natural designs could be incorporated into body armor, soldiers may be more likely to survive explosive attacks.
ORTIZ: The value is really taking the principles that have evolved over millions of years for specific functions, and many of them for multiple functions, and trying to apply those principles to new engineered materials. So that's the whole concept, is really trying to improve on the materials that we have today by learning from nature.
Scientists have long known that the dinosaur eel's armor could have military applications. But not until the last decade did they have devices sophisticated enough to study its thin, tiny scales.
ORTIZ: What we did in our group is really take these new tools, these new techniques, instruments and were able to measure the properties of the scale across the cross-section at very, very high precisions, so millionths of a meter.
Ortiz is doing her research through MIT's Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies. The institute's mission is to develop body armor that not only protects humans, but is also lightweight, comfortable, flexible, and multifunctional.
This program aired on July 28, 2008. The audio for this program is not available.