MIT engineers looked to nature for inspiration on a new adhesive. In particular, mussels and barnacles. These shellfish secrete sticky proteins in order to latch on to rocks or ships.

Engineers from MIT have created a waterproof adhesive that could be used in a variety of ways. From repairing the bottom of ships to healing surgical incisions.

The new adhesive is described in the September 21 issue of the journal Nature Nanotechnology.

Creating a New Adhesive

Engineered bacteria was used to produce a hybrid material that combined the natural sticky mussel protein along with a bacterial protein found in biofilms. The end product is even stronger than the sticky proteins produced by mussels.

Timothy Lu, a professor and senior author of the paper, describes the primary goal for the research team is “where we can start building materials that combine multiple different functional domains together and see if that gives us better materials performance.”

Previous attempts at creating adhesives focused on engineered E. coli bacteria to produce mussel foot proteins. The MIT engineers wanted to create an adhesive that mimics the complexity of natural adhesives.

The press release from MIT News goes into detail on how the team accomplished this.

Lu’s team engineered bacteria so they would produce proteins consisting of curli fibers bonded to either mussel foot protein 3 or mussel foot protein 5. After purifying these proteins from the bacteria, the researchers let them incubate and form dense, fibrous meshes. The resulting material has a regular yet flexible structure that binds strongly to both dry and wet surfaces.

The researchers tout their adhesive is the strongest protein-based underwater adhesive inspired by nature yet.

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What’s Next

This new adhesive is incredible and could see many uses ranging from structural repair to medical. But, with many new things comes additional challenges. Mainly, creating the adhesive on a large-scale. The team of engineers will look to improve the process of creating the adhesive in the hopes of mass production one day.

Image credit: Yan Liang

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