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MONTREAL, Quebec — The sticky liquid mussels make to stay in their shells is serving as inspiration for scientists making a new glue which works underwater. Blue mussels, the common mussel served in seafood restaurants worldwide, use a highly effective underwater “glue” to stick to rocks despite constant interference from ocean waves. The decade-long research has discovered the cellular mechanisms by which mussels fabricate their underwater glues.

The mussels’ beards (which cooks remove before preparing them) are made up of byssal threads and are used to help keep the mussels tethered in place. At the end of each thread is a disc-shaped plaque that acts as an underwater glue. The unusual qualities of the glue and the byssal threads have interested people since ancient times, when the threads of certain species were woven into luxurious berets, purses, gloves, and stockings. (CREDIT: Tobias Priemel)

The findings could drastically advance adhesives in wet environments, like in surgical or dental treatments, or even make everyday devices like phones waterproof. Researchers discovered mussels can make the glue within two to three minutes by mixing metal ions with fluid proteins that harden into a solid adhesive.

How do mussels make their ‘glue’?

Inside the mussel foot, there are channels a tenth of the full width of a human hair that funnel the substances that come together to make the glue. The mollusk then secretes condensed fluid proteins in tiny sacs into the channels where they mix metal ions, iron, and vanadium taken in from the seawater. After mixing together, the animal slowly releases it in a carefully timed process. Researchers say very few organisms accumulate vanadium, a substance humans use to create space vehicles and nuclear reactors.

“The specific mechanism by which mussels produce their adhesive has been shrouded in mystery until now because everything occurs hidden from view inside the mussel foot. To understand the mechanisms involved we applied advanced spectroscopic and microscopic techniques and developed an experimental approach that combined several advanced and basic methodologies from across biochemistry, chemistry, and materials science,” says study first author Tobias Priemel, a Ph.D. student at McGill University in a release.

Mussels can make their underwater adhesive within 2-3 minutes by mixing metal ions with the fluid proteins. It’s a matter of bringing together the right ingredients, under the right conditions using the right timing. The more we understand about the process, the better engineers will later be able to adapt these concepts for manufacturing bio-inspired materials,” adds Dr. Matthew Harrington, associate professor at McGill.

The study appears in the journal Science.

South West News Service writer Joe Morgan contributed to this report.

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