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Scientists have harnessed the mollusks' uncanny ability to stick to rocks.

August 22, 2017

Mussels may do a lot more for us than just offering us a delicious vehicle for butter and garlic (or tomato and peppers or sausage and shallots). Scientists are now studying the way that mussels stick to slippery rocks to make pre-natal surgery a much safer option.

When doctors are performing surgery on a fetus, one precarious reality is that they have to stick their instruments through the incredibly fragile amniotic sac, which can be very difficult to repair. But now, using the ingredient that mussels use to cling like hell to a wet rock, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley have developed a glue that might save a lot of lives.

The mussel foot—the weird, tail-like thing sticking out from the back—includes an amino acid called dihydroxyphenylalanine or, for those of us who don't want to try to figure out how to pronounce a word with three Ys and nine syllables, DOPA. To turn this mussel glue into something that humans can use for surgery, Diederik Balkenende, a researcher at University of California, Berkeley, created a DOPA solution that can be put in a syringe.

Here's where another surprising animal comes into play: cows. Researchers tested the solution on a wet, flimsy membrane that surrounds cows' hearts. Sure enough, the glue successfully held the pieces of membrane together, but the researchers aren't just looking for ways to fix tears that already exist. Philip Messersmith, the lab boss, said "Repairing a hole in the amniotic sac is a daunting engineering challenge. So in addition to the novel polymer that we're making, we're approaching its delivery from a new angle, which is what we call pre-sealing." Pre-sealing would mean applying the glue and letting it harden before they begin the surgery to prevent the amniotic sac from tearing in the first place.

Granted, the glue is a long way away from actually being used in hospitals as further tests need to be conducted to find out if the glue is safe to use on humans. Still, it's very promising. And just for that, we're going to celebrate with rosé-steamed mussels.