University of California molecular biologist Daniel Morse worked for five years to crack one of nature's enigmas. "An abalone can withstand assaults from a hungry sea otter pounding on its shell with a rock," he says. "Such tremendous strength made us realize that nature has already solved many of our engineering problems."
Then, in December 1999, the pieces fell into place. He and his team at UC Santa Barbara's Marine Biotechnology Center figured out how an abalone molecule called lustrin increases the shell's strength by a factor of 3,000.
His findings have outdoor-equipment manufacturersdreaming of fail-safe climbing ropes, unbendable ski poles, and rip-proof tents and clothing. "For kayaks and paddles, this stuff would most definitely be of interest," says Steve Scarborough, vice-president of design at Dagger Canoe and Kayak. "If the synthetic actually measures up in terms of stiffness, tensile strength, and weight, it could make an awesome boat. The Olympic committee will probably outlaw it right away."
To understand the strength of a lustrin molecule, visualize a microscopic bight of thick rope bound by a thin rope. Pull hard enough on the ends of the thick rope and eventually the thinner strand breaks—but the larger one stays intact. Each lustrin fiber incorporates thousands of such sacrificial bonds, and because just one bond breaks at a time, only a tremendously intense, sustained force can rip all of the molecules apart and shatter the mollusk's shell. In safety equipment like helmets, says Galen Stucky, a UCSB professor who helped Morse lead the research, this new breed of material could offer incomparable protection.
Though researchers have isolated lustrin and deciphered its molecular structure, lustrin-based outdoor products aren't expected for at least three to five years, according to Stucky. In the meantime, eager R&D geeks will have to fantasize about ersatz-abalone equipment. "I'd love to announce that we're coming out with new, armored mountain-biking pants—'Soon to be on your shelves! Weighing 13 ounces and offering bullet-resistance!'" says Patagonia's environmental assessment director Eric Wilmanns. "But we aren't quite there yet."