Scientists developing 'superglue' from mussels

Researchers are developing a natural 'superglue' from the kind of adhesive mussels use to cling to the water's edge. Photograph: Elaine Edwards

Researchers are developing a natural 'superglue' from the kind of adhesive mussels use to cling to the water's edge. Photograph: Elaine Edwards

Sun, Feb 17, 2013, 00:00

Researchers are developing a kind of natural superglue based on the powerful adhesives that mussels use to cling to rocks at the water's edge.

They believe it could do service in human medicine closing up wounds and in cancer therapy, and unlike almost all synthetic adhesives the mussel glue works even in the wet.

Mussels attach themselves to surfaces by thin but amazingly strong threads, said Prof Emily Carrington of the University of Washington", Friday Harbor, Washington state. They cling successfully in shallow intertidal waters where waves exert tremendous forces. She refers to these threads as nature's bungee cords and has studied them for 20 years, learning what it is that makes them so tough, she said during a session at the ongoing American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Boston. Each strand is only three to 10 times the width of a human hair.

Prof Phillip Messersmith of Northwestern University in Illinois described how the ability of the adhesive to stick even when wet was one of its most valuable characteristics. "Man-made adhesives don't do that very well," he said at the meeting. In a medical context virtually all of the surfaces where it might be used are wet.

His group is involved in pre-clinical animal trials to confirm the mussel adhesive works. Efforts were also underway to develop a synthetic version of the glue, something that was almost essential if the product was to be used in human medicine.

The mussels use 40 to 100 threads to attach to rocks, walls and other mussels and they must renew them regularly, Prof Carrington said. They last about two months in winter but just two to four weeks during summer because of the warmer waters.

The research was revealed at the annual American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting in Boston.

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