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What is the first word that comes to your mind when I say Indiana? If your word is oysters, then you belong to a fairly small fraction of humanity, a fraction that includes NPR science correspondent Joe Palca. Joe has recently returned from the Hoosier State and has this Midwest installment of his project, Joe's Big Idea.
JOE PALCA, BYLINE: My big idea is basically an attempt to explore what scientists and inventors are really all about: what drives them, what makes them tick. For example, Jonathan Wilker is the chemist who brought me to Indiana - West Lafayette, to be precise. I'm not exaggerating when I say he's stuck on oysters, and come to think of it, he thinks everyone else should be, too.
JONATHAN WILKER: This is what happens when I'm on an airplane, and it comes up that I'm a scientist, people say: What do you study? And I'll say, yeah, you know, when you're at the beach and you see all those creatures stuck to rocks. And they'll say, yeah, yeah. I said, so, we're trying to figure out how they do that. And the typical response is oh.
PALCA: And if that's not enough to get people interested, Wilker lets the other shoe drop.
WILKER: Look, these glues that these animals are producing, they're really strong and they set wet. Go to the hardware store, buy everything on the shelf and try to glue two things together underwater, and you're not going to be able to do it. And this is how we're going to learn how to do that.
PALCA: This highly serious search for the sticky secrets of shellfish - try saying that three times fast - is in a boring old lab building on the Purdue University campus. Inside one of the rooms, Wilker shows off three giant tanks of saltwater and an elaborate pumping system to keep the water moving.
(SOUNDBITE OF WATER SPLASHING)
WILKER: We just got this last week. This one's 300 gallons.
PALCA: Did you build all this? This...
PALCA: Oh, I love this. This isn't off-the-shelf stuff.
There's something gray at the bottom of one of the smaller tanks.
WILKER: These are oysters in here.
PALCA: Do they like it in here?
WILKER: They love it.
PALCA: The oysters came from a colleague in South Carolina. Wilker rolls up his sleeve.
WILKER: So, I just reached in the tank, and I pulled out a cluster of oysters that are all cemented together.
PALCA: It's a clump about the size of a baseball mitt. I want to pick one up, too.
WILKER: Oh, be careful. The edges are very sharp. So, you can pick it up if you want, just be careful.
PALCA: It's hard to tell where one oyster ends, and the next one starts.
WILKER: So what they've done is they've cemented themselves to each other.
PALCA: Another tank holds a collection of mussels. They also make glue, but a different kind, one that isn't nearly as rock-hard as oyster glue. In the lab next to the tank room, Wilker and his colleagues are making synthetic versions of the oyster and mussel glues.
WILKER: I'm very excited about this. Under certain conditions, our synthetic version of the mussel adhesive is actually stronger than superglue that you buy. It also can set underwater. Actually - come here. Come here. Here's a drawer with every kind of adhesive you can buy at the store.
Every one of these things we put in the Instron and pulled apart and tried to measure the adhesion strengths under various conditions.
PALCA: Epoxy - ha! We don't need your stinking epoxy. We've got oyster glue.
Well, I'm getting a little silly, but it's Wilker's fault. He cracks me up. And besides, Wilker appreciates my enthusiasm.
WILKER: Sometimes I wonder why there aren't, like, more people wanting to do this, 'cause I think it's so cool.
PALCA: Not just cool, but possibly really important. Remember, these glues set in a wet environment. What if Wilker could make one surgeons could use to hold tissue together, or set bones? That would be huge. Wilker remembers the day he first became fascinated with oyster glue. He's a scuba diver, and one time he went diving with some buddies off the Southern California coast. On this particular day, the sea was fairly rough.
WILKER: I was totally getting knocked around by all the waves. And I was getting knocked up against barnacles and mussels, and my face was jammed up.
PALCA: Then he realized something.
WILKER: Basically, I couldn't stay in place, but they weren't moving at all, right. And so I was just curious as to how they're able to do that. And so, to me, it was - I couldn't walk away from that. So I ditched some other things and said we have to do that.
PALCA: That's how it all started. He told his bosses at Purdue he was going to study how oysters and mussels stick to rocks, and they said: Fine by us. It's not enough to learn just how these creatures stick. Wilker wants to learn how they unstick, too.
WILKER: Let me see. Oh, yeah, yeah. There's one other thing I want to show you over here, which also I think is kind of cool, is we're trying to make surfaces that the animals cannot stick to.
PALCA: On a lab bench, Wilker has a bunch of tiles painted with a non-toxic, non-stick coating he's created. Later, he'll put the tiles in a tank and see if mussels and barnacles can attach to them. If his anti-stick coating works well enough, he says it'll be a big improvement over what ships use now to keep their hulls clean - at least from an environmental point of view. Wilker says now we poison the shellfish.
WILKER: Our current technology, essentially, is kill everything in the water around the ship that doesn't stick.
PALCA: Wilker started his pursuit of oyster glue in 1999, and I'm thinking, come on, now. It's 2013. What's taking so long?
WILKER: Well, how about this? I'll give you a bunch of oysters right in the other room, and I'll say you figure it out, and get back to me in less than 13 years. And we'll see how you do.
WILKER: I want to watch this. I'm going to get some popcorn. I want to watch how this goes.
PALCA: Even though there are inventions that may someday come from Wilker's lab, he doesn't really think of himself as primarily an inventor.
WILKER: I guess what motivates me is if I look at some science and I just say, that's cool. And that's enough. Maybe we'll make a surgical glue or a bone cement. I really hope we do. And, yeah, that'll be a billion-dollar thing, and we're working towards that. But if you're not going to be happy until you hit that point, then life's going to be pretty difficult.
PALCA: If the medical stuff doesn't pan out, a bunch of other potential moneymakers have still come Wilker's way. A few years ago, he got some media attention for his work, and that led to a slew of calls from companies that needed one kind of adhesive or another.
WILKER: Apparently, there's a need for a fake nail glue.
PALCA: Wilker says it seems that people who use a lot of the currently available fake nail glues can develop a toxic reaction to them.
WILKER: So if we can make an adhesive that would replace what they're using now, all it has to be is, you know, as strong, but just a little less toxic, then we could take over the market, right?
PALCA: After you do the fake nail glue, you want to do the fake eyelash glue, too.
WILKER: You know, I got a call for that. You're joking. See? See? This is how crazy - and to some degree, fun - science can be. I got a call for that from a company.
PALCA: I guess you just can't predict how an invention is going to be most useful. Joe Palca, NPR News.
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