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The sticky science of adhesives under water



The sticky science of adhesives under water

The mussel adhesive protein is the model for a new synthetic adhesive developed by McKelvey School of Engineering & Fuzhong Zhang. Made by manipulated microbes and modeled on the fabric that mussels use to stick to submerged surfaces, this glue will also work under water. Credit: Zhang lab

Mussels stick to rocks on the seabed, to aquatic plants, and – to the consternation of water sports enthusiasts – they can link zippers to sea-going vessels, regardless of their composition: metals, rubber, glass, wood and more.


But the annoying bivalves of today can help researchers to develop a new means to repair a wound.

Scientists from the McKelvey School of Engineering at Washington University in St. Louis have copied the mussel's sticky protein and are now working on improving it for daily use. The strong underwater adhesive can have many applications, it can even help to repair the boats that are now harassed by the molluscs.

"Most synthetic adhesives don't work on wet surfaces, but mussel foot proteins (Mfp) can even adhere to surfaces underwater," said Fuzhong Zhang, associate professor of energy, environment, and chemical technology. "This unique feature makes Mfp suitable for many applications, from underwater repair to biomedical adhesives. With further engineering, an MFP glue can be used to heal wounds, or perhaps even to replace sutures."

Zhang has received a $ 502,034 grant from the Office of Naval Research to improve their initial success, microbially produced underwater adhesives that are stronger than those naturally enhancing mussels.

The sticky science of adhesives under water

This image shows the power of a new synthetic glue developed by Zhang. Made by manipulated microbes and modeled on the fabric that mussels use to stick to submerged surfaces, this glue will also work under water. Credit: Zhang lab

Research in the Zhang lab focus on engineering microbes to produce renewable materials and chemicals with desirable properties, a field called synthetic biology. An example of his team's work is engineering bacteria that produced synthetic spider silk that was as strong and strong as natural spider silk fibers. For glue proteins, his team, published in late 2018, showed that synthetic proteins made by artificial bacteria are even more tacky than natural MFPs when used under water.

The power of synthetic biology is that researchers can refine the properties of protein materials by manipulating their genetic codes. "We can change one parameter for each parameter," Zhang said. For example the length of a chain of Mfp5. "If we see adhesion getting better and better with an increase of one parameter, then we can say: & # 39; Ok, this parameter can increase adhesion & # 39;" he said.

It appears that this is exactly what the team found: when the Mfp protein chain was made longer, the adhesion under water was stronger than that with natural chain length.

This approach could enable them to explore many unknown mechanisms that control underwater adhesion parameter-by-parameter. "Understanding the mechanism through synthesis can lead to additional improvements in adhesion, or improve other adhesive properties." Zhang said. "In general, we try to understand the mechanism that synthetic biology uses by producing and testing the materials."


Bacterial factories can produce high-quality proteins for space missions


More information:
Eugene Kim et al. Microbially synthesized repeats of mussel-foot protein display Improved underwater adhesion, ACS applied materials and interfaces (2018). DOI: 10.1021 / acsami.8b14890

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Washington University in St. Louis

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The sticky science of underwater adhesives (2019, April 17)
retrieved 17 April 2019
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