Threads key to mussels’ magic staying power


Fine dangling filaments give mussels an amazing ability to cling to rocks and ship hulls and survive the ocean’s battering, scientists said Tuesday.

Mussels have long been feted for the glue with which they adhere to surfaces in the harsh marine environment, but just as remarkable, says a new study, is the web of fragile-looking strands called byssus threads that mussels use as an anchor chain. The hairlike filaments enable the humble bivalve to hang on loosely. This gives it a tiny ability to drift, boosting its chances of tucking into micro-nutrients in the sea.

But at the same time, dangling means it gets sloshed about by crashing waves and currents.

Glue alone cannot explain why the mussel is not bashed to pieces, said Markus Buehler, a professor of civil and environment engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

He and MIT research scientist Zhao Qin found that the byssus threads, secreted by a gland in the mussel, are a remarkable mixture of proteins: 80 percent of each strand is of stiff material, which attaches to the surface with the help of the famous glue coating, while 20 percent is soft and stretchy, and adheres to the mussel.

Put together, this mixture provides elasticity and rigidity, dampening the force of water but not fighting destructively against it.