Watch: Bizarre New Skinlike Material Changes Color Just Like a Chameleon

Researchers have developed a new material that mimics the properties of skin and also changes color in the process, according to a new study published in the journal Science. The first-of-its-kind material could change the way doctors deliver drugs to the body or work with implants for reconstructive surgery.

In animals, skin serves as an important line of defense and can rapidly stiffen to prevent injury. And in some species, like chameleons, skin can change color when it goes from a relaxed to an excited state for the purposes of camouflage or displays of aggression.

These natural defenses inspired scientists from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to create a biomimetic material—synthetic materials that mimic designs found in nature—that is soft on touch, stiff when it is deformed and also changes color. A material with this combination of characteristics has never been developed before, according to the researchers.

Scientists have created a new skinlike material that changes color just like a chameleon. Carl Court/Getty Images

This new material could have useful applications in the field of biomedical implants. "Our body can be viewed as an aging car that constantly needs replacement parts," Sergei Sheiko, a professor in the chemistry department at Chapel Hill and an author of the new study, told Newsweek. "Given the steadily aging population, this creates pressing need in better and diverse materials for biomedical devices. One key demand is that these materials closely mimic mechanics of living tissue to mitigate inflammatory response and immune rejection. "

Sheiko continued, "The approach reported in our paper enables precision synthesis of tissue-mimetic materials with precisely encoded mechanical properties. We can make materials as soft as brain tissue and as stiff as skin. They are ideal for direct use as implants for reconstructive surgery and drug delivery. "

When creating the material, the researchers sought to mimic the proteins in skin that are responsible for stiffness—known as collagen and elastin. Collagen fibers help to resist deformation, while elastin ensures that skin can recoil to its original form. They developed a polymer—materials made from long, repeated chains of molecules—with both soft and flexible characteristics. Light reflects differently off the material when it is stretched, shifting toward a blue color when elongated and becoming redder when it is condensed, producing the chameleon-like effect.