Jonathan Wilker, assistant professor of chemistry at Purdue University, presented research on the mechanisms behind how ocean mussels bind so tightly to rocks and ship hulls at the meeting being held here June 2-4, at the Radisson Hotel Metrodome on the East Bank campus of the University of Minnesota.
The research could lead to the development of adhesives far more powerful than those available today. Another potential application of the work is the design of surgical adhesives that could replace the tissue-damaging sutures currently used in surgery. The mussels' adhesives are made up of soluble proteins that cross-link to form a hardened matrix. His team has preliminary results indicating that metals such as iron are vital to this matrix, representing the first time transition metals have been shown to be essential for the synthesis of a biological material.
Wilker now hopes to build on and improve the mussels' natural design. It could also lead to antifouling coatings for ship hulls.
Current antifouling agents are based on copper- or tin-based agents that diffuse from the hull's paint into the surround water, killing the organisms. "We're hoping that, once we understand the chemistry of biological adhesion, we can prevent it -- without having to kill everything in the water," said Wilker. "I think we'll be able to come up with some really neat materials by combining what we learn from the mussels with basic knowledge of synthetic adhesives and polymers." (This paper will be presented at 9:10 AM, Tuesday, June 4, in the Regents Room in the Radisson Hotel Metrodome )