Have you ever wondered how those hard-shelled mollusks known as mussels anchor themselves to rocks on lake and river bottoms? How they stick to sea walls, or resist pounding waves?
Scientists at the University of Chicago have done more than come up with some answers. They’ve actually created a synthetic gel that mimics the mussel’s sticky, self-healing properties. Their invention could have far-reaching medical and industrial applications.
Niels Holten-Anderson – a post-doctoral scholar at the University of Chicago – says mussels do two things really well. They excrete a sticky adhesive and they can use that natural glue to repair the anchoring bond.
“And the important thing to remember is that there are no cells. There is no live or living activity taking place inside these materials. The material is basically a dead material, just like our hair,” says Holten-Anderson. “So this capacity to re-heal itself is completely automatic, and it’s not relying on any energy input from living cells.”
Holten-Anderson, his University of Chicago colleagues and a team of international scientists worked on how to turn what mussels create naturally into a synthetic material. They zeroed in on the chemistry of what the mollusks secrete and discovered metal mixed inside their thin, hold-fast fibers. Holten-Anderson says iron is a key ingredient that makes the adhesive strong and flexible.