Retrospectacle: A Neuroscience Blog

Ear Protein Powered Space Suits?

i-932c826085a4ddbf047980d71a19778e-prestin.bmp NASA loves to use weird science to make useful stuff…..even proteins found in the inner ear, in the hair cells to be exact. The protein is called prestin, which is the motor protein on hair cells, which may also find a new use powering space suits. If prestin is combined with electricity-producing microbes (geobacter) in a suit, NASA hopes it will result in the physical motion of the astronaut (and even gusts of wind) being converted into energy. Cool!

Outer hair cells can contract and expand in response to sound, which results in an amplification of auditory stimulus. Prestin changes the conformation of the outer hair cell in response to electricity (in this case, signals from the auditory cortex in response to sound). Prestin makes this possible by converting electrical voltage into motion, and is also capable of the reverse (converting mechanical displacement into electrical impulses). Sure, prestin operates on a nanowatt scale, but IntAct Labs believes that increased power is as simple as increased protein levels. In the future, prestin-based materials might even be used to charge batteries or power small devices.

Because the power skins are made from biological components, Silver says it might be possible one day for them to grow and heal themselves in space. “First, we want to prove the mechanism works,” he told New Scientist. “But the ultimate goal is to design architectures that harness the ability of biological mechanisms to self-assemble.”

Peter Dallos of Northwestern University in Illinois, US, which patented the prestin molecule in 2003, says prestin may be 10,000 times more efficient at generating power than the best manmade material.

But he thinks developing space applications with the protein may be far in the future. “I don’t really see how they go about it,” Dallos says. “If they have some way of harnessing it, then more power to them.”

Yah, more power to them!

(Hat tip Darkman.)


  1. #1 darius
    February 22, 2007

    That is way cool. Even google-boy might be happy to see this one.

  2. #2 Shelley Batts
    February 22, 2007

    I’m not sure if there’s marketing involved, so the jury may still be out on that one. 🙂

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