Minute nanoscale whiskers taken from sea creatures hold the key to creating human muscle tissue, say researchers.

University of Manchester academics Stephen Eichhorn and Julie Gough, working with doctoral student James Dugan, chemically extracted cellulose in the form of nanowhiskers from tunicates, known as sea squirts.

“Cellulose is being looked at very closely around the world because of its unique properties, and because it is a renewable resource. But this is the first time it has been used for skeletal muscle tissue engineering applications,” said Eichhorn.

Cellulose is a polysaccharide — a long chain of sugars joined together — usually found in plants. It is the main component of paper and certain textiles such as cotton, according to a Manchester statement.

Tunicates grow on rocks and man-made structures in coastal waters. Nanowhiskers are tens of thousand of times smaller than muscle cells and are the smallest physical feature found to cause cell alignment.

Nanowhiskers are already being used for a number of different medical applications, including wound dressings, but this is the first time it has been proposed for creating skeletal muscle tissue, help repair existing muscle or even grow muscle from scratch.