I just received my Natural History magazine (finally publishing again after a seven-month hiatus, hooray!), and was immediately fascinated by the latest research on barnacle glue. Now, this might sound like the most boring topic since the last time someone tried to show you photos of their grandchildren at a party, but really, it’s cool. Last I’d heard, scientists were trying to figure out just what makes up the adhesive compound that barnacles produce to cement themselves to rocks. The practical applications of being able to synthesize such a glue are tremendous, since this is one of the strongest adhesives in nature (along with the glue that mussels make). On the other side of the equation, shipping companies would love to learn how to destabilize this stuff, since they spend gazillions each year scraping barnacles off ship hulls all over the world. (Idle question: how long does it take to scrape the barnacles off a 333-meter long [1,092 feet] Nimitz-class aircraft carrier? It must be like one of the Labors of Hercules.)
Turns out that progress has been made. A team of researchers at Duke University have isolated a protein-cutting enzyme in the glue which, it happens, is also involved in human blood clotting. Then when they turned their attention to the proteins themselves, they found
…amino acid sequences that, despite a billion years of evolution, exactly matched sequences in a human blood-clotting protein that cross-links fibers during scab formation.
So the scientists suspect that this amazing glue is actually “an evolutionary modification of wound healing.”
Next time you pick a scab off your arm or leg, think about that. You’ve got something in common with barnacles — but they’ve improved on it.