The discovery has already resulted in three pending patents and should lead to a wide range of new products. But it was originally based on the aroused curiosity of Kaichang Li, an OSU assistant professor, who was harvesting mussels one day from their rocky home at the ocean's edge.
Li observed mussels being pounded by ocean waves, and wondered how they could cling so tenaciously to rocks by their thread-like tentacles.
"I was amazed at the ability of these small mollusks to attach themselves so strongly to rocks," said Li, who is an expert in wood chemistry and adhesives in the OSU Department of Wood Science and Engineering. "Thinking about it, I didn't know of any other type of adhesive that could work this well in water and withstand so much force."
Li decided to look much more closely at the chemistry of the mussels' byssus, which are small threads that attach them to rocks and other surfaces. The byssus thread is a protein with a very unusual composition - an abundant level of a phenolic hydroxyl group and an amino group - that results in the ability of mussels to stick tightly to surfaces despite being inundated in water.
"Clearly the mussels have evolved with the ability to make this protein so they can cling to rocks despite wave forces," Li said. "It's quite remarkable, just an incredibly unique natural feature."
The mussel protein is a superior adhesive, but not readily available. In trying to identify a protein that could be adapted for this purpose, Li had another inspiration at lunch - while eating tofu.
"Soy beans, from which tofu are made, are a crop that's abundantly produced in the U.S. and has a very high content of protein," Li said.
Soy protein is inexpensive and
Contact: Kaichang Li
Oregon State University