Bacteria Make Superglue

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Kids and adults alike know that bandages don't stick to wet skin. Imagine how hard it would be to get one to work inside the watery environment between cells, tissues, and organs. But that’s exactly where strong, waterproof medical adhesives would be very useful for setting broken bones, stitching skin, or applying antibacterial coatings to implants or artificial heart valves.

Help may be on the way, albeit from an unlikely source. While studying bacteria to understand the basics of how cells work, microbiologist and geneticist Yves Brun, Ph.D., of Indiana University in Bloomington stumbled on a natural form of "superglue" in the bacterium Caulobacter crescentus. The glue is a sugary substance that doesn't dissolve in water, which makes sense because the bacteria appear to use the substance to attach to water pipes and rocks in freshwater streams. Curious about the glue’s strength, Brun performed a test. He allowed the bacteria to attach to a tiny glass tube, then measured the force required to rip them off, using a special microscope equipped with a probe.

Brun's findings reveal that the bacterial glue is several times stronger than commercial dental adhesive or even superglue, with an adhesive force of nearly 5 tons per square inch. This makes it the strongest biological adhesive ever measured. What's more, Brun's studies suggest that the glue works in water and can attach to just about any type of surface—including Teflon®. These characteristics make the substance an ideal candidate for a surgical adhesive, says Brun, who is now working to understand more about the properties of the natural glue.