The National Science Foundation is reporting about the work of Dr. Sam Bowser, from the New York State Department of Health’s Wadsworth Center, that tries to understand how Antarctic creatures known as Foraminifera build their outer shells with the help of water-resistant glue. Such a material might have a range of clinical uses:
… the effort reveals the chemistry underlying the naturally produced glue, the research could lead to the development of stronger biological adhesives that could be a boon in fields as diverse as dentistry, neurological surgery and the development of artificial arms and limbs.
Like most things in life, however, Bowser has found that the adhesive material secreted by Foraminifera is more complex than it first seems.
The foundation of the adhesive appears to be a protein, which in turn is heavily coated with sticky carbohydrates. The cells secrete the different components from distinct organelles into a membranous pocket, and then draw the composite into a sticky fiber.
Breaking the material into its components for analysis has been a tricky proposition. Bowser claims he has “gummed up” so many sensitive analytical tools that his chemistry colleagues use his photo as a dartboard.
Recently, he has turned his attention more deeply towards the evolution of the adhesive substances. One of the biggest surprises involved the earliest-evolving species that secrete adhesives. Instead of finding evidence for a progression from structurally simple to more complex glues, Bowser learned that simple and complex types occur together within more primitive groups.
The goal of using these adhesives in biomedicine remains elusive, but slow progress is being made in understanding their origins and their importance to the biology of the organisms that created them.