According to a report from MIT, the sticky proteins that shellfish such as mussels and barnacles secrete help them cling to rocks or ship hulls – even underwater – have inspired a team of researchers to create new materials that could be used to repair ships or help heal wounds and surgical incisions.
To construct their new waterproof adhesives, the MIT researchers engineered bacteria to turn out a hybrid material that incorporates naturally sticky mussel proteins and a bacterial protein found in biofilms, which are the slimy layers formed by bacteria growing on a surface. Together, these proteins form even stronger underwater adhesives than those secreted by mussels.
The results of the study appeared yesterday in the journal Nature Nanotechnology, and represent a new type of approach that can be leveraged to manufacture biological materials with multiple components, using bacteria as tiny factories.
“The ultimate goal for us is to set up a platform where we can start building materials that combine multiple different functional domains together and to see if that gives us better materials performance,” said Timothy Lu, an associate professor of biological engineering and electrical engineering and computer science (EECS) and the senior author of the paper.
The sticky matter that helps mussels attach to underwater surfaces is made of several proteins known as mussel foot proteins. According to a Harvard study titled “Molecular mechanics of mussel adhesion proteins,” the mussel foot protein is a natural glue produced by marine mussel, is an intriguing material because of its superior ability for adhesion in various environments. Only a very small amount of this material is sufficient to affix a mussel to a substrate in water, providing structural support under extreme forces caused by the dynamic effects of waves.