Structure, Cellular Synthesis and Assembly of Biopolymers

Volume 19 of the series Results and Problems in Cell Differentiation pp 27-54

The Formation of Mussel Byssus: Anatomy of a Natural Manufacturing Process

  • J. Herbert WaiteAffiliated withCollege of Marine Studies and Department of Chemistry, University of Delaware

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The byssus is an extraorganismic polymeric structure in marine mussels and generally employed as a holdfast or tethering device. Like man-made plastics, the byssus is robust, tough, devoid of living cells, and disposable. Unlike plastics, however, it is ultimately biodegradable. Structural and mechanical analysis of the byssus reveals an exquisitely complex design at every level from the microcellular solid in the plaques to the fiber gradients in the thread core to the interpenetrating polymer networks of the byssal varnish. Such fine tuning of materials properties deserves closer scrutiny and, perhaps, imitation. In this vein, the formation of byssus can be caricatured as a series of manufacturing processes including injection and extrusion molding, calendering, and sizing. The biological relevance of each of these caricatures is explored in this chapter.