Studying Sea Life for a Glue That Mends People

Henry Fountain in The New York Times:

Gum SALT LAKE CITY — Along one wall of Russell J. Stewart’s laboratory at the University of Utah sits a saltwater tank containing a strange object: a rock-hard lump the size of a soccer ball, riddled with hundreds of small holes. It has the look of something that fell from outer space, but its origins are earthly, the intertidal waters of the California coast. It’s a home of sorts, occupied by a colony of Phragmatopoma californica, otherwise known as the sandcastle worm. Actually, it’s more of a condominium complex. Each hole is the entrance to a separate tube, built one upon another by worm after worm.

P. californica is a master mason, fashioning its tube, a shelter that it never leaves, from grains of sand and tiny bits of scavenged shell. But it doesn’t slather on the mortar like a bricklayer. Rather, using a specialized organ on its head, it produces a microscopic dab or two of glue that it places, just so, on the existing structure. Then it wiggles a new grain into place and lets it set. What is most remarkable — and the reason these worms are in Dr. Stewart’s lab, far from their native habitat — is that it does all this underwater. “Man-made adhesives are very impressive,” said Dr. Stewart, an associate professor of bioengineering at the university. “You can glue airplanes together with them. But this animal has been gluing things together underwater for several hundred million years, which we still can’t do.”

More here.