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Wash U Engineers Study Sticky Mussels To Make Strong Waterproof Glue

Mussels stuck to a bottle
Zhang Laboratory
Researchers at Washington University are studying the proteins in mussels to understand what makes them stick on wet surfaces. Their studies could help develop strong, waterproof glue.

Engineers at Washington University are studying the substances that make mussels cling to boats and ships to develop stronger, waterproof types of glue.

Many super glue products and other adhesives on the market are ineffective when they become wet. Researchers want to know how the proteins in mussels allow them to stick to any surface despite being in very wet environments.

That knowledge could help them build strong adhesive materials for the naval and biomedical industries, said Fuzhong Zhang, associate professor of energy, environmental and chemical engineering at Wash U.

“Our goal is to have a deeper understanding of what makes this material so adhesive and be able to design a better adhesive,” Zhang said. “If there is a boat that starts leaking, you can use this material and repair the leak even if it’s in the water.”

In a paper published last year in Applied Materials & Interfaces, Zhang and his colleagues reported some success in manipulating the genetic code in mussels to create adhesives that are stronger than natural mussels. The Office of Naval Research gave Zhang more than $500,000 to support further research.

Zhang is also interested in working with doctors to use mussel proteins to improve a wide range of adhesives used in medical products. It’s possible to create a robust glue that could be used to help heal wounds, he said.

“We can generate hundreds of forms of glue with slightly different properties,” Zhang said. “Once we understand what determines each property, we’ll hopefully be at a stage that we can design a type of adhesive that the customer needs.”

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Eli is the science and environment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.