BERKELEY, Calif. (KGO) --They cling to rocks for dear life and it turns out the lowly salt-water mussel accomplishes the feat by creating a kind of natural super glue.
Now University of California bioengineering professor Phillip Messersmith, Ph.D., is trying to learn if the mussel's formula could help improve on human-made glues used in the most delicate surgeries.
First, it helps to understand that the mussel, is covered with tiny threads. When it wants to attach itself, it sticks out a foot to secrete pools of adhesive literally pasting the threads to rock. "It's a fascinating process which they start by secreting liquid proteins and the proteins harden rapidly, kind of like an epoxy," Messersmith said.
But why would adhesive from a brainless bivalve like a mussel be suited for securing human tissue? Keep in mind our blood contains salt, as does salt water. The same environment mussels and their glue have evolved for. "So it makes sense to learn from marine species how they attach to surfaces," Messersmith said.
In their lab at Berkeley, Messersmith's team is synthesizing versions of the mussel glue, testing its strength on everything from sausage casings to chicken skin. "And this able to help us tell the difference between the good sealants and the better sealants and the really strong ones," researcher Sally Winkler, M.S., said.
They say their first target are cutting edge surgeries performed on unborn babies in the womb. They say one of the challenges is sealing the fluid sack that surrounds the fetus. "Right now we're working to develop a formulation that would be strong enough to go into the uterus during pregnancy," Winkler said.
They say it may be several years before a final version is approved for human testing.
In the meantime, they continue to tap centuries of marine evolution hoping to turn a sticky secret from the sea, into a life-saving tool for human surgery.
Written and produced by Tim Didion.