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Scientists Probe 'Glue' That Keeps Oysters Together

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Scientists say they've unraveled the recipe for the natural cement that oysters use to stick to each other, creating rock-like reefs. Surprise: It's mostly chalk.


Most of the time, people focus on what's inside an oyster. But some scientists at Purdue University in Indiana think there's something on the outside that's also important. NPR's Joe Palca tells us what's attracted their attention.

JOE PALCA: Oysters have been taking it on the chin lately. Their numbers are dwindling in places where they were once plentiful. But oysters have some remarkable abilities.

JONATHAN WILKER: Oysters build these really extensive reef structures; they can be miles long.

PALCA: Jonathan Wilker is a chemist at Purdue University.

WILKER: We were curious to know how they actually do this construction feat, how they actually stuck together.

PALCA: So he started growing oysters in his lab. Once the oysters had snuggled up to each other and bonded together, he cut them apart to see what was making them stick. Now, Wilker has also studied other marine glue makers. Based on work with mussels, he expected the cement might be made of protein or some similar, organic compound.

WILKER: What the oysters seem to be doing is using a little bit of protein, or a small amount of an organic component, but have the majority of the material, 90 percent or so, be actually a hard, inorganic calcium carbonate, which is kind of like chalk.

PALCA: Maybe you don't think of chalk as a component of an adhesive, but then, you're not an oyster. The cement isn't all that different from the shell. The shell is also calcium carbonate and protein, just in different proportions. The cement welds the shells together. In addition to being interested in oyster cement for what it tells you about how reefs are built, Wilker says it may be possible to make something similar for mending broken bones.

WILKER: If you think of any glue that you buy at the store, you apply it to your surfaces, and then the first thing that you usually have to do is wait for it to dry out. Obviously, shellfish are doing something quite different. So if you wanted, say, a wet-setting surgical glue or a bone cement, something like this might be quite applicable.

PALCA: Wilker says he already has some potential candidates for these wet-curing cements. Another thing he's interested in is a way to defeat the cement.

WILKER: If you have a ship, and you do not want your ship to be encrusted with oysters and barnacles and sea grasses and things like that, maybe if you first understand how they stick, you can develop surfaces that they will not stick to.

PALCA: Wilker says he's got some promising non-stick surfaces in the lab, too. Who knows? Someday, oysters may be more famous for their adhesive, rather than their culinary, properties.

Joe Palca, NPR News, Washington.

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