Academics from the University of Manchester have developed a process of creating working human muscle tissue from sea squirts. The research holds promise for the engineering of muscles, ligaments and nerves from cellulose which is usually found in plants and is the main component of paper and plant based textiles such as cotton and linen. The creation of muscle from scratch along with the ability to repair existing muscle has the potential to improve the lives of millions of people around the world.

Tunicates, commonly known as sea squirts, grow on rocks and man made structures along coastal waters. They are small rounded or cylindrical animals with a hollow body and an outer shell of cellulose – long chains of sugars joined together. The researchers extract this cellulose in the form of nanowhiskers just 10 nanometers wide (one nanometer is one billionth of a meter) These are thinner than a human hair and smaller than muscle cells. Once aligned and parallel to each other, the nanowhiskers influence the behavior of skeletal muscle cells causing rapid muscle cell alignment and fusion. Alignment is important as it gives muscle tissue its strength and stiffness.

Cellulose is a renewable resource, the method of extraction fast and simple and due to its unique properties. It is already being used for a number of different medical applications including wound dressings and in other commercial applications as an adhesive and binder but this is the first time it has been used for creating muscle tissue.