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Californian mussels (Mytilus californianus)

Californian mussels (Mytilus californianus) on rock in intertidal zone


Researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara, were inspired by the tough, flexible polymeric byssal threads that marine mussels like these Californian mussels (Mytilus californianus) use to secure themselves to surfaces in the rugged intertidal zone.

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Many polymer-based materials -- used in everything from tire rubber and wetsuit neoprene to Lycra clothing and silicone -- are elastomers valued for their ability to flex and stretch without breaking and return to their original form.

But trying to make these materials stronger often means making them more brittle. That's because structurally, elastomers are rather shapeless networks of polymer strands -- often compared to a bundle of disorganized spaghetti noodles -- held together by a few chemical cross-links.

Strengthening a polymer requires increasing the density of cross-links between the strands by creating more links. This causes the elastomer’s strands to resist stretching away from each other, giving the material a more organized structure but also making it stiffer and more prone to failure.

Now, inspired by the tough, flexible polymeric byssal threads that marine mussels use to secure themselves to surfaces in the rugged intertidal zone, a team of researchers affiliated with the University of California (UC), Santa Barbara's, Materials Research Laboratory (MRL), a National Science Foundation Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (supported under grant DMR 11-21053), has developed a method for overcoming the inherent trade-off between strength and flexibility in elastomeric polymers.

"In the past decade, we have made tremendous advances in understanding how biological materials maintain strength under loading," said co-author Megan Valentine, an associate professor in UCSB’s Department of Mechanical Engineering. "In this paper, we demonstrate our ability to use that understanding to develop useful manmade materials. This work opens exciting lanes of discovery for many commercial and industrial applications."

Read more about this research in the UC Santa Barbara news story Learning from mussels. (Date image taken: June 2017; date originally posted to NSF Multimedia Gallery: April 17, 2018)

Credit: Emmanouela Filippidi, UCSB

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