Researchers may have tapped into the "secret sauce" that allows sharks, skates and rays to detect weak electric fields produced by their prey. Actually, it turns out to be a mysterious jelly, but one that could have implications for future technologies.
It's been known for centuries that tiny organs in the animals' skin called the ampullae of Lorenzini are key to the ability, but exactly how they work has not been understood. The organs are visible as pores in the skin that are connected to electrosensory cells via long, jelly-filled canals. New research finds that the jelly may be the key to the entire system.
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A team of scientists from UC Santa Cruz, the University of Washington, and the Benaroya Research Institute at Virginia Mason looked into the properties of the jelly and found it to have the highest proton conductivity ever seen in a biological material.
According to UC Santa Cruz professor Marco Rolandi, a co-author on a paper detailing the findings in Science Advances, the jelly's conductivity even begins to approach that of leading proton-conducting polymers.
"The observation of high proton conductivity in the jelly is very exciting," Rolandi said. "We hope that our findings may contribute to future studies of the electrosensing function of the ampullae of Lorenzini and of the organ overall, which is itself rather exceptional."
Proton conductors can be used in technological applications like fuel cells, and Rolandi sees potential use for these "shark jelly" insights in the development of new or enhanced materials or even the creation of new sensor technology.