Sea Squirt “Nanowhiskers” May Help Regrow Human Muscle Tissue

Tiny polysaccharide fibers in sea squirts are similar in composition to the cellulose found in plants. (Photo credit: Andrew J. Martinez/Photo Researchers, Inc.)

Researchers at the University of Manchester in northwestern England have found that cellulose taken from tunicates can be used to influence the growth of skeletal muscle cells in the laboratory. Tunicates, also called sea squirts, are simple marine mammals. Though they float freely in the water as larvae, once they mature into adults, most tunicates attach themselves to the ocean floor and live the reminder of their lifetime without moving.

Celllulose is a polysaccharide, or complex carbohydrate, that is most typically thought of as the substance that makes up the cell walls of plants. The cellulose that makes up a tunicate’s body structure is similar to that produced by plants. In their experiment, the scientists extracted the cellulose from the tunicates as cellulose nanowhiskers (CNWs). At just tens of nanometers wide–much thinner than a strand of human hair–these nanowhiskers are tiny in size.

When applied to a layer of precursor muscle cells, the nanowhiskers caused the muscle cells to quickly align and fuse together. Proper alignment is important to muscle tissue because similarly-aligned fibers help provide a muscles strength and stiffness. Both of these characteristics are important for movement.

Dr. Stephen Eichhorn, a scientist who contributed to the study, believes these results could have a profound effect on medical research.

Cellulose is being looked at very closely around the world because of its unique properties, and because it is a renewable resource, but this is the first time that it has been used for skeletal muscle tissue engineering applications, Dr. Eichhorn said in a press release about the research.There is potential for muscle precision engineering, but also for other architecturally aligned structures such as ligaments and nerves.

Other scientists who contributed to the research included lead author James Dugan, a Ph.D. student, and Dr. Julie Gough. The results of their research were published in the journal Biomacromolecules.

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