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Genetic engineers are working on making an invisible man. Seriously

Hot off the heels of Blumhouse Productions’ The Invisible Man movie, scientists at the University of California, Irvine have published a paper describing work that could make such a thing possible in real life. Maybe. And it’s all thanks to a helpful assist from a very specific squid protein.

The project involves genetically engineering human cells to have the ability to vary their transparency. This is based on a characteristic found in cephalopods, the family of marine animals to which the squid belongs, that are able to change both the color and transparency of their skin. For example, certain female squid scare off aggressive males by changing the color of transparent tissue on their body to mimic the size, color, and position of testes found on male squid.

What the researchers did in this latest piece of work was to take embryonic human kidney cells and grow them in a dish using a special technique to create the same protein found in color and transparency-shifting squid.

“We genetically engineered human cells to produce a squid protein called reflectin,” Alon Gorodetsky, a researcher in chemical engineering and material science at UC Irvine, told Digital Trends. “The protein formed particles within the cells, which we visualized with various types of microscopy. The particles’ presence changed the optical properties — [the] refractive index — of the cells and thus altered the way they scattered light. We then showed that we could tune the cells’ scattering of light with a chemical stimulus, salt, effectively changing their transparency.”

This is an early step toward developing cells that could be reversibly and tunably changed to alter their transparency levels. “We [now] need to develop improved strategies for controlling both the assembly of the protein-based particles without our cells and for tuning their optical properties in real time,” Gorodetsky explained. “A better understanding of the structure and self-assembly of reflectin proteins would be important for informing our efforts.”

As he noted, “there is a lot of work, and many steps, left before we can achieve genetically encoded invisibility.” But such a thing could be “possible very far down the line,” although it will require “numerous breakthroughs” to get there.

Considering that Invisible Man movies never seem to end up with the protagonist turning out to be a particularly swell guy, perhaps that’s ultimately a good thing.

The UC Irvine research was recently published in the journal Nature Communications.

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Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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