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Clues to Waterproof Glue Found in Antarctic Creature
By Wendy Heller, January 5, 2008 @ 02:00 AM (EST)
Source: Nsf.gov

Among the most abundant organisms in the oceans, the scientifically interesting aspects of Foraminifera, or forams for short, far exceed their physical size. The largest of the species might reach the size of only a fingernail, yet they are able to capture and eat creatures many times their own mass.

From a global perspective, the drive to understand these creatures is, in part, a result of their role in recycling nutrients in the oceans. Because of the huge numbers of Foraminifera in the seas, when they make their calcium carbonate shells, they act as a "carbon sink," absorbing carbon from the water. Scientists are very interested in knowing how this contributes to balancing greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

While Bowser's primary research goal is simply to understand as much fundamental foram biology as possible--habitat, life cycle, reproductive patterns, eating habits, how the organisms evolved--he has taken a particular interest in how these tiny organisms build miniscule, but sophisticated, shells out of grains of sand using an extremely effective underwater adhesive.

Bowser is pursuing basic research into these questions under the auspices of the U.S. Antarctic Program managed by the National Science Foundation, and if the effort reveals the chemistry underlying the naturally produced glue, the research could lead to the development of stronger biological adhesives that could be a boon in fields as diverse as dentistry, neurological surgery and the development of artificial arms and limbs.

Like most things in life, however, Bowser has found that the adhesive material secreted by Foraminifera is more complex than it first seems.

The foundation of the adhesive appears to be a protein, which in turn is heavily coated with sticky carbohydrates. The cells secrete the different components from distinct organelles into a membranous pocket, and then draw the composite into a sticky fiber.

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