URI professor investigates the muscle behind blue mussels

KINGSTON, R.I. -- May 23, 2001 -- The blue mussel clings to life by a thread. Make that about 80 byssal threads in the winter and 30 or so threads in the summer, but you get the idea that life for these hard-shelled mollusks is quite dramatic.

If hanging on to a rock in the intertidal zone while waves come and go isnt enough, the blue mussel faces the threat of being ripped off its rocky perch by violent storms or hurricanes. And now comes global warming, which is making the world windier and the waves stronger. The mollusk will either have to get stronger by producing more threads or fall off and die.

Will the blue mussel whose species is dominant throughout the world maintain enough muscle actually extra cellular fibers -- to remain steadfast or simply go with the flow?

That in a seashell is something University of Rhode Island assistant professor Emily Carrington of Wakefield, an expert on the blue mussel and its marine community, is trying to determine.

Funded by a three-year, $320,000 National Science Foundation grant, Carringtons overall research goal is to determine the ability of mussels to adjust their attachment strength to prevailing wave conditions so that she can predict when mussels may be dislodged based on changes in wave activity.

Since 1998, the URI biologist in the College of Arts and Sciences has monitored blue mussels living at the edge of Narragansett Bay, measuring their size and strength each month.

Back in her URI lab, Carrington uses a materials testing machine, commonly used by engineers to test materials such as concrete, to measure the strength and elasticity of the mussels threads. She is also examining the force required to crush its shell.

Just how far can the threads stretch? "The threads are natures little bungy chords," says Carrington, noting that the threads are stronger than most rubber materials and can stretch up twice their length before breaking. That function is important because as tethers

Contact: Jan Sawyer
University of Rhode Island

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