For example, applying certain materials over a sticky object could prevent an object from becoming contaminated—a handy feature for medical instruments.
Secondary exposure to a copper nitrate solution would give an object a metallic sheen, useful in electronics such as flexible displays.
In another application, water polluted with mercury or lead could be passed through a column of beads coated in the adhesive. The metals would stick to the beads, allowing clean water to flow out the other side.
(Read more about threats to the world's freshwater supplies.)
"Each of these applications involves pretty much the same first step but a different second step," Messersmith noted.
He and his colleagues are now trying to determine the limits of the technology and where to focus their development efforts.
Herbert Waite is a marine biologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who studies how each ingredient in the mussels' protein cocktail comes together to make the mollusks so sticky.
He said Messersmith's team deserves credit for reducing the complex ingredients to "two very simple features" to make their sticky coating.
"It's nice that the mussel inspired it with its own highly evolved adhesive technology," he said, "but it isn't the same thing as mussel adhesion."
If a mussel just squirted dopamine, the chemical would simply diffuse into the large volume of surrounding seawater, he noted.
"What works for man would not have worked for the mussel."
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