Andy Smith: Research in Biology
Our research takes a biomimetic approach to the study of biological adhesives. The glues that we study have unusual and highly desirable properties that would make them excellent medical adhesives. Thus, our goal is to determine the structure of these glues and how their structure creates such impressive performance. From there, it may be possible to mimic the natural design to make a similar synthetic adhesive. Many animals, especially snails and slugs, can form strong attachments using dilute gels. Limpets, for example, can often glue themselves onto rocks so firmly that one needs tools to pry them off. This is particularly impressive because they do it underwater; they can attach to wet, slippery surfaces that confound artificial adhesives. Furthermore, the molluscan adhesive gels are often 97% water, and appear to be modifications of the normal lubricating slime the animals secrete. We are interested in how animals can convert dilute, lubricating gels into strong adhesives. We have found specific, gel-stiffening proteins that drive this change. Interestingly, the function of these proteins, and the integrity of the glue overall, depends on the presence of metals. Iron, copper, zinc and calcium are common in the glue, and play different roles. We are identifying and characterizing the components of the glue, then testing how each contributes to the glue’s performance. We are also interested in differences in glues among species.
We use four major approaches to study these glues:
- We use biochemical tools to identify and characterize the proteins, polysaccharides and metals present in the glue.
- We use biochemical and mechanical methods to test how these different components contribute to glue performance. Specifically, we manipulate components of the glue and measure the impact of the changes on glue mechanics.
- We study tissue sections of the secretory epithelium in order to gain insight into how the glue is assembled.
- We create novel gels using commercial components that mimic the natural glue’s components, in order to test hypotheses of mechanism and ultimately to guide the synthesis of a biomimetic glue.
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