Mussel Superglue and Human Problems

Mussel Superglue and Human Problems  Blue Mussels
Blue Mussels attached to rocks

Have you ever tried to glue something underwater? I needed to do that in several situations, and I have tried everything on the market. The various commercial glue and epoxy products don’t last very long underwater. That is especially true when subject to vibration or stress. Somehow, barnacles and mussels firmly attach themselves to boats and rocks underwater. How does this mussel superglue work?

A mussel has glands in its slug-like feet that secrete a glue that hardens into a filament that attaches it to a rock or hard surface in less than five minutes. Within a few days, it has a cable of several hundred such threads that will withstand years of pounding surf. Measurements show it can withstand a force of a thousand pounds per square inch and even stick to Teflon.

The U.S. Navy spends millions of dollars each year trying to find ways to stop crustaceans and mollusks from fouling their underwater equipment. Dr. Herbert Waite, a marine biochemist at the University of California studying mussel superglue, discovered that a mussel has two separate compartments to produce its glue. One compartment contains resin-like proteins, and the second produces chemicals that act like hardeners. When the two come in contact, the proteins harden in minutes.

The mussel superglue contains various adhesive proteins with different functions. Some are catalysts, while others act to separate the filaments. Some contain an amino acid called dopa that makes gels that bond filaments together. These gels have gotten significant attention from dentists and surgeons who need materials that will bond in wet environments.

Undoing mussel glue is another issue that scientists are studying. Understanding how mussel superglue works could lead to anti-glues. Dentists could apply them to teeth to prevent the buildup of dental plaque. Doctors could use anti-glues to prevent cardiovascular stents from becoming clogged. Mussel superglue is another case where studying what God has designed can give us answers to human problems.

— John N. Clayton © 2022

Reference: Discover magazine for February 2003, pages 22-23.