Young oysters secrete a sticky substance to attach themselves to a spot where they will spend the rest of their lives.

A Purdue chemistry professor aims to learn how these substances work to determine how these natural adhesives can be used in the medical field.

Professor Jonathan Wilker said he has been studying marine life since coming to Purdue in the late 1990s, but his passion began when he was a child growing up on the east coast. 

"I was curious about how the stuff worked, and there's not as much information out there as you might think," Wilker said. 

Wilker said his interest grew out of his scuba diving hobby. 

In his lab, oysters and mussels live in salt water tanks.

Last week, dozens of mussels were living in one tank, that is kept near freezing. The large clumps of mussels attached themselves to the walls of the tank and to each other through tentacles called cilia. A layer of sticky goo also binds mussels together.

This study looks at how the creatures secrete different adhesives at different points in their lives, Wilker said.

Beginning as larvae, mussels secrete an adhesive that binds them to where they want the spend the rest of their lives, Wilker explained. After 48 hours, they begin to grow into juvenile oysters, secreting a different adhesive compound that binds them to other oysters. 

"I have some ideas, but we don't actually know," Wilker said about upcoming studies to understand why the secretions change. "We have a lot of stuff planned for the future to understand how that works."

The professor said one goal is to better understand how nature makes materials. We tend to focus our attention on the chemical makeup of something, rather than understanding the structure or the engineering behind how these shellfish stick to surfaces. 

"The other goal is to be able to make new materials based on what we learn from the animals," Wilker said.

Wilker hopes to one day develop an adhesive that could replace the toxic adhesives we have today. Wilker has divided his research team into two groups: one to studying the oyster's secretions, the other applying the secretions to the medical field. 

Lee Huntington, a graduate student working in the lab, is one of those studying the applications of the adhesives. Using a special machine, he demonstrated the toughness of the material they're working on compared to traditional adhesives.

The adhesives we use are not as effective when they're applied on wet surfaces. Wilker said he hopes to improve this fault, ultimately eliminating traditional toxic adhesives.

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