Purdue chemist 'mussels' in on secrets of natural adhesives

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - Purdue University scientists have found the glue that saltwater mussels use to affix themselves to rocks is a subject worth sticking to, both for its pure scientific interest and for its potential applications in medicine and industry.

Jonathan Wilker and his research group have discovered that the formation of mussel adhesive requires iron, a metal that has never before been found in such a biological function. While the discovery is valuable for its scientific merit, it also could impact the market as well, leading to surgical adhesives, rustproof coatings and antifouling paints to defeat barnacle adhesion.

"These animals appear to use iron in a way that has never been seen before," said Wilker, an assistant professor of chemistry in Purdue's School of Science. "Research based on materials like this one could open up new branches of adhesives research, helping us to do things such as develop new surgical procedures and prevent barnacles from sticking to ships."

The research appears as the "feature communication" in today's (Monday, 1/12) issue of Angewandte Chemie International Edition, a leading chemistry journal.

Mussels stick to objects such as rocks, pilings and each other. Up close, it is easy to see the dozens of tiny filaments - often referred to as its beard - that stretch from a mussel, attaching it to its home turf. A mussel has an organ called a "foot" that it extends, attaching each filament to a stationary object with a tiny dab of glue. The foot then repeats the process until it is secure enough to resist the pull of tides, currents and predators.

"It takes about five minutes for a mussel to make an adhesive plaque, and it uses 20 or more such plaques to anchor itself," Wilker said. "A mussel can easily establish itself overnight."

Key to the mussel's tenacity is the plaque, or glue, that holds these filaments in place, and it is the chemistry of this glue that Wilker and his f

Contact: Chad Boutin
Purdue University

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