A certain type of protein found in organs that repeatedly stretch and retract – such as the heart and lungs – is the source for a favorable electrical property, called ferroelectricity, that could help build and support healthy connective tissues, according to researchers at the University of Washington and Boston University. When exposed to sugar, some of the proteins could no longer perform their function.

“This finding is important because it tells us the origin of the ferroelectric switching phenomenon and also suggests it’s not an isolated occurrence in one type of tissue as we thought,” said co-corresponding author Jiangyu Li, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at University of Washington. “This could be associated with aging and diabetes, which I think gives more importance to the phenomenon.”

Ferroelectricity is a response to an electric field in which a molecule switches from having a positive to a negative charge. Researchers traced this property to elastin and found that, when exposed to sugar, the elastin protein sometimes slows or stops its ferroelectric switching. This could lead to the hardening of those tissues and, ultimately, degrade an artery or ligament.

The research team focused solely on aortic tissues, but this finding likely applies to other biological tissues that have the protein elastin, such as the lungs and skin, according to the team.