Sea Urchin Teeth Inspire Space Exploration Tool

sea urchin teeth inspire engineers
A sea urchin. The animal’s unique mouth and teeth served as the inspiration for a prototype designed to collect sediment samples on other planets.

The teeth of humans and other animals not only help us function in the present, they can also hold clues about our past (in the form of fossilized dental calculus) and point us toward the future (modern dental implants were inspired by our natural tooth structure, and scientists are currently investigating methods to grow new teeth).

Teeth may even help us take a bite out of the final frontier: outer space.

Teeth vs. Shovel

Seeking to develop a new means for collecting sediment samples on other planets, including Mars, a team of engineers and marine biologists recently turned to the teeth of an intriguing creature—the sea urchin—for inspiration.

Exploratory vehicles like the Mars rover currently employ adapted shovels to gather samples. But a research group at the University of California-San Diego has developed a claw-like prototype based on the mouth and teeth of the sea urchin that may prove more effective.

According to a Science Daily article, the device would be more precise in latching onto samples, which it would do with outward-grabbing teeth that then close inward to contain the sediment. It also wouldn’t disturb the surrounding topsoil as a shovel may.

Replicating Sea Urchin Teeth

In order to reproduce the mechanical aspects of the sea urchin mouth, researchers scanned the mouthpieces of some sea urchins with a microCT scanner, a three-dimensional, digital X-ray similar to modern dental technology.

Those images were then converted into precise digital models that replicated the geometry and motion of the sea urchin mouth. Once the modeling was complete, engineering students began the work of constructing functional prototypes using 3-D printers.

Although it took a few rounds of trial and error to get the various components working together, the research team finally arrived at an efficient version that they hope may be of interest to NASA or SpaceX.

What’s So Special About Sea Urchin Teeth?

Researchers turned to sea urchin due to the animal’s unique bite structure. Sea urchins have strong, triangular teeth that form a dome. The teeth open outward and close inward in uniformity.

Slow-moving creatures that feed mostly on algae, sea urchins nonetheless possess powerful enough bites to bore through rock. Their teeth contain a T-shaped component, known as a keel, that reduces stress on the teeth in comparison to weight load; this structure became especially important in the design of researchers’ prototype.

Sea urchins are also able to regrow lost teeth, a trick the team was not able to replicate with the exploration device. However, the teeth of sea urchins and sharks, both of which can regenerate teeth, are the focus of ongoing research that may eventually provide new treatments for replacing missing teeth.

Austin dentist Dr. Dan Matthews is dedicated to helping patients maintain beautiful, healthy smiles through comprehensive and highly personalized cosmetic dentistry and restorative dentistry treatments. Please call Dan Matthews, DDS, today at 512-452-2273 to schedule your appointment at our Bee Cave Road office.

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