Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Through their lens: Brian Su says innovations arise through interdisciplinary thinking

This summer we're sponsoring high school interns in stem cell labs throughout California. We asked those students to contribute to our Instagram photos and YouTube videos about life in the lab, and write about their experiences.

In addition to carrying out a stem cell research project, the students were expected to carry out a secondary project relating their work to other areas of study.

Brian Su submitted this photo of his lab notebook to our #CIRMStemCellLab Instagram feed. He did a stem cell research internship this summer in the laboratory of Thomas Weimbs at University of California, Santa Barbara.
Mussels are a group of clams or bivalves. They are marine organisms that filter feed microorganisms from the sea water that is constantly rushing by. Mussels clump together in groups, with each one adhering tightly to a rock to resist being dragged away by the water from which they feed. The system by which mussels are able to stick so strongly to their anchors is by using a byssus, or a collection of sticky filaments. When a mussel’s foot clamps to a rock, it creates a small vacuum chamber into which liquid byssus is pumped. Movements of the foot condense the byssus into fine filaments that serve as an extraordinarily strong, moisture resistant, and durable adhesive.

Current pressure sensitive adhesives are effectively nontoxic and cheap, but lack moisture resistance. Water renders many common adhesives ineffective. Although effective siliconebased underwater adhesives do exist, they are also much more expensive, leading to research on cheaper alternatives.

The Waite Lab at University of California, Santa Barbara, is investigating synthetic underwater adhesives by biomimicry of mussels’ byssus. Led by Professor Herbert Waite of the Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology, they have already developed mussel-inspired filaments that bind to metal surfaces for the US navy, but continue to work on improving their design.

Though the research done by the Waite Lab is primarily focused on the chemical aspects of adhesion, biological adhesives are another possibility. While the concept of a living adhesive is may be, at the very least, slightly unsettling, it may yet prove to be effective and versatile. Connective tissue cell structures analogous to tendons and ligaments could be created as an adhesive mechanism and customized as required depending on the target surface. A layer similar to the cambium of vascular plants could accompany the adhesive cells to replace dying or weakened cells. The result would be self regenerating glue. The food source for this autorepairing adhesive would be a pouch of nutrient paste near the cells. By keeping the cells alive and thus, attached, the food pouch also serves as a biological timer to allow the cells to survive and stick for an exact amount of time. This creates additional function and versatility for the proposed system.

While the system could theoretically function standalone, it could also serve as an addition to the Waite Lab’s adhesives. One possible combination would be the Waite Lab’s adhesive fibers surrounded by a mesh of connective tissue that serves to support and reinforce. The speculative cell glue could also serve to seal off the synthetic fibers from the water to increase moisture resistance of the total adhesive substance.

Should a substance like the one outlined above be created, it would be a breakthrough for both adhesives as well as for application of bioengineering to other fields of research. It would bring interdisciplinary fields into a whole new light by fusing biological and synthetic adhesives together. The uses of such a product would range from situations that require extra adhesion, to situations in which an adhesive must stick for a certain amount of time. While the direct uses would be significant, perhaps even more significant would be the partnering of more fields and the incorporation of natural features into a new generation of innovation.

Brian Su

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