Mussel byssus could lead to new ways to repair bones and tendons
By Richard Gray, Science Correspondent4:00PM BST 23 Jul 2013
Researchers claim to have unravelled the secret behind the strength of the fine filaments, known as byssus threads, which the shellfish use to secure themselves to rocks.
The sticky threads that mussels use to attach themselves to rocks could be used to repair bones, tendons and even replace stitches.
The material is made of a protein that is closely related to collegen, which forms skin, bones, cartilage and tendons in mammals.
This acts like a stretchy bungee cord, where 80 per cent of the threads are made from a stiff filaments and 20 per cent are soft and stretchy.
This mix allows the threads to deform without breaking, helping to keep the mussel attached to the rock.
The findings, which are published in the journal Nature Communications, could now be used to help design synthetic materials that share these properties and could be used to create new glues.
Zhao Qin, a civil and environmental engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said glues and sticky threads based on mussel byssus could be used to help repair damaged bones or as surgical sutures in blood vessels, where there is a need for material that is flexible as well as stiff.
He said: "About 80 percent of the length of the byssus threads is made of stiff material, while 20 percent are softer and stretchier".
The soft and stretchy portions of the threads attach to the mussel itself, while the stiffer portion attaches to the rock.
This combination works like a well designed bungee cord, which can stop the fall of a person jumping from a great height — and do so gently enough to prevent injury, because the stiffer region of the cord slows down the fall, but the softer region tempers the slowing of the fall to be a gradual process.
These findings could help in the design of synthetic materials that share some of these properties.
For example, surgical sutures used in blood vessels or intestines are subjected to pulsating or irregular flows of liquid; the use of materials that combine stiffness and stretchiness, as byssus threads do, might provide advantages.
"We may also design synthetic materials for tendon, which connects the muscle to bone and subjects to impacts, by applying the concepts found here."
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