Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Mussel Power

Image: Clanke
This week's podcast comes from the AAAS Meeting in Boston, where researchers were talking about what they've learned from mussels, the tiny mollusks that bind to hard surfaces along ocean coastlines. Mussels position themselves right in the path of crashing ocean waves, which means they have to withstand thousands of pounds of pressure if they want to stay attached.

If I had to guess (before this meeting) how mussels accomplish this feat of strength, I might assume they used some sort of biological cement: something rigid and thick. In actuality, mussels use something called a byssal thread, which is not much thicker than a human hair. Researcher Emily Carrington talked a bit about her work studying these threads in the wild.

Not only do these tiny threads somehow withstand thousands of pounds of force, but they attach to surfaces in the presence of water. That's something that most human-made adhesives can't do (try using a tube of epoxy from a hardware store to bind something in an aquarium). For the last 40 years, researchers have tried to understand how the mussels accomplish this. One of the lead scientists in the field is Herbert Waite, who talked about how mussels use a chemical called DOPA to expel the water from underneath the byssal thread. Researcher Philip Messersmith and his group at Northwestern University are using a similar chemical structure to make medical adhesives that could be used in surgery and to heal internal tissue tears. Marcus Textor used the same DOPA binding mechanism to improve the design of nanoparticles, which can be used to deliver drugs to specific locations in the body.

Listen to the podcast (on our website or on iTunes) to learn more.

And here are a few additional stories about this work: in ScienceNow and CTV News.

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