Jellyfish are usually the ones inflicting the stings but a new medical development has them inspiring ways to relieve pain. Scientists recently unveiled extra-sensitive electronic skin for robots and humans. Inspired by jellyfish, it lights up when it’s hurt. This advance could really help both prosthetics and robotics since electronic skin to date hasn’t been sensitive enough at high pressure to anticipate potential damage from a harmful blow.

Scientists led by Dr. Bin Hu at the Huazhong University of Science and Technology drew inspiration from jellyfish traits that aren’t so obvious when you’re hopping around because you stepped on a baby jellyfish on the beach. His team’s advancements, published in the ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces journal, were inspired by the way deep-sea Atolla jellyfish experience a pressure change and signal the danger with bioluminescent flashes. Here’s how the deep sea inspiration came to life in the lab:

Who Knew Jellyfish Were Such Sensitive Creatures?

Jellyfish appeared hundreds of literally hundreds of millions of years ago, and like so many sea creatures, they are bioluminescent. That eerie glow occurs when the jellyfish’s luciferin (no joke, that’s the name) interacts with oxygen and causes the jellyfish to emit light. (On an interesting side note, even though they’re the ones inspiring the scientists, recent studies have shown that jellyfish were some of the later sea creatures to develop a bioluminescent ability and unlike many species that produce their own luciferin, jellyfish obtain their RDA by eating tiny bioluminescent crustaceans).

The Atolla jellyfish that inspired Hu and crew is of the crown jellyfish family and has 22 tentacles. Its dark red color is used for camouflage most of the time, but when it’s alarmed it tries to scare its attacker by setting off those luciferin-sponsored light flashes. Hu’s research team parlayed this technique by inserting poly-dimethylsiloxane film with phosphors into silver nanowires like a single-layer lasagna. The setup responds to slight pressure by producing an electrical signal. If the pressure gets intense, though, the layer sounds the alarm like an Atolla that’s spotted a deep-sea predator. It glows and keeps increasing its emissions in response to increased pressures. In other words, if it’s “hurt,” it lights up to let either its robot or human know.

Medical Students Might Benefit, Too

This skin that acts as an underwater creature may also have applications in medical education. As Jamie Barras, a teaching fellow in the Department of Informatics at King’s College London suggested in Physical Engineering, the electronic skin could be used to create a cadaver substitute (or “phantom”) for med students learning palpation, also known as hands-on medical examinations. Basically, the phantom would be covered with the extra-pressure sensitive electronic skin and could help med students learn to apply appropriate pressure levels during exams.

Jellyfish Also Inspired Waterproof Self-Healing Skin

Scientists have also mimicked jellyfish to create electronic skin that works underwater, featured in journal Nature Electronics in February 2019. As Assistant Professor Benjamin Tee from the National University of Singapore (NUS) explained in a press release, electronic skin has serious limitations when wet. “One of the challenges with many self-healing materials today is that they are not transparent and they do not work efficiently when wet,” he said. “These drawbacks make them less useful for electronic applications such as touchscreens which often need to be used in wet weather conditions.”

Jellyfish already had perfected the waterproof, self-healing skin concept that his team needed, Tee said. “NUS scientists have taken inspiration from underwater invertebrates like jellyfish to create an electronic skin with similar functionality,” he noted. “Just like a jellyfish, the electronic skin is transparent, stretchable, touch-sensitive, and self-healing in aquatic environments. It can be used in everything from water-resistant touchscreens to aquatic soft robots.