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Mussels -- material artists with grip
Date:3/4/2010

We may like to eat mussels steamed in white wine, but we also like to find mussels at the beach. Mostly they are burrowed into the ground or tethered to rocks. But if you look closer you will find a mollusc which has adapted to life and nutrition in a special and fascinating way. Mussels thrive in rocky seashore habitats, in spite of the enormous physical demands present there. This is in no small part due to the evolution of the byssus, which mussels employ to tether themselves to accessible surfaces.

The individual byssal threads that compose the byssus are stiff, but stretchy and are fashioned by the mussel in a process resembling injection molding. Byssal threads are depended upon for dissipating the energy of crashing waves and also for resisting abrasive damage from water-borne debris. To this end, threads are sheathed with a thin and knobby outer cuticle; a biological polymer, which exhibits epoxy-like hardness, while straining up to 100% without cracking.

Incredible hardness and extensibility

Matthew Harrington, a researcher who worked on the project and Humboldt fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Colloids and Interfaces explains the motivation for studying the byssus cuticle: "Protective coatings are important for prolonging the lifetime of materials and devices. However, considering that hardness and extensibility are seldom coupled in engineered polymers or composites, understanding how one protects a flexible substrate becomes quite important." Byssal cuticles have a knobby appearance due to inclusions of submicron-sized granular structures in an apparently continuous matrix. Submicron-sized tears that form in the matrix during stretching of the cuticle are believed to hinder the formation of larger cracks that could lead to material failure.

Central to understanding the peculiar mechanical behaviour of the cuticle are the high concentration of iron ions in the cuticle and the presence of an uncommon
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Contact: Matthew Harrington
Matt.Harrington@mpikg.mpg.de
49-331-567-9429
Max-Planck-Gesellschaft
Source:Eurekalert

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