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Discovery Magazine 1/1/2003

Underwater Glue

by  Brad Harrub, Ph.D.

Have you ever had a cut so bad that it required stitches? Wouldn’t it be nice if, instead of using needles and silk thread, doctors could just apply some “special glue” that would hold the skin together? Think how nice it would be if your backyard pool sprang a leak, and you could simply squeeze some of this special glue around the hole to repair it. Researchers think they have finally found that “special glue.” One of the problems with glues and adhesives in the past has been that they didn’t work well in water. Since much of the body is composed of water, doctors have had to turn to stitches to sew up wounds. But scientists have found a creature—the blue mussel—that manufactures a glue-like substance that works great underwater.

Blue mussels love cold water, and can be found worldwide in most polar and temperate waters. In North America, they can be found along beaches from Canada down to North Carolina, and in some parts of California. Blue mussels are shellfish that normally have two bluish-black shells that look somewhat like a pear (similar to clams). Projecting out from between the shells on the bottom side is a bundle of tough, brown fibers called the byssal threads or byssus (commonly called “the beard”). Mussels use these fibers to anchor to rocks, pilings, and other mussels. It is the glue that holds these threads to solid surfaces that fascinates researchers. This glue holds extremely well underwater, and is strong enough to keep the mussels anchored, even when waves pound them. What makes it even better is that it can be appliedunderwater!

Scientists have analyzed this special underwater adhesive, and have already begun to make similar products. A company called BD Biosciences took the key proteins that make up this “underwater glue” and made a product called Cell-Tak. This material is used to attach cells or tissue sections to many types of surfaces where they normally wouldn’t stick, including plastic, glass, metal, and Teflon®. Researchers are now busy finding ways to help dentists and surgeons operate without using stitches. They also believe that this material may allow them to make paints and coatings that could work underwater. All of this from a small shellfish that God so intelligently designed!

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