Mussel matchmaking and the glue that holds them


New research shows how mussels find the perfect match. For mussels, fertilization occurs between eggs and sperm that have been released into the water. Up until now, it seemed the pairings were random limiting the ability to choose mates and diminishing the chance for successful fertilization due to genetic mismatches. However, recent research shows that the eggs actually release chemicals to attract the most compatible sperm.

Since mussels are able to stick to just about any surface, including teflon (image below), other researchers are exploring mussel proteins for creating bio-inspired adhesives and bandages. Imagine adhesives that actually stay on in water! In fact, Dr. Messersmith at Northwestern University recently demonstrated that mussel-inspired "glue" could be used to repair tiny holes in the membrane that surround a fetus and result in leakage of amniotic fluid increasing the risk for miscarriages. These defects can happen during endoscopic surgery on the fetus to correct birth defects or may develop spontaneously. Dr. Messersmith found the mussel glue to be biocompatible and effective as a sealant although the studies have only been conducted on isolated fetal membranes and not yet tested during pregnancy.

mussel teflon.jpg
Image: Mussels stuck to a rock (left) and teflon (right) from Northwestern University

J. Evans et al., "Assessing the potential for egg chemoattractants to mediate sexual selection in a broadcast spawning marine invertebrate," Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, doi: 10.1098/rspb.2012.0181, 2012.

Wired Science

Northwestern University

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I have to tell you I'm so old when you mention mussels and glue I think of the Odd Couple episode when Oscar tries to sell his dentist's glue made from mussels but when it dries up it fails.

There is a fortunate waiting any aspiring biologist or chemist who figures out an inexpensive way to prevent mussels from adhering to an undersea surface.

Why are the eggs described as "trying to attract the most compatible sperm"? It seems likely that they would use the attractant competitively in trying to attract sperm. Is the language a consequence of our tendency to focus on male competition and female choice (instead of the opposite) or is there a biological reason (eg, the distances are great enough that competition isn't a relevant factor)?