Indiana University Research & Creative Activity

Humanities, Then and Now

Volume XXIX Number 1
Fall 2006

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bacterium

World's Strongest Glue! Available Only from Nature!

When it comes to science news, what grabs headlines isn't always the stuff that's related to sex, medicine, or exploding stars.

In April, Indiana University Bloomington microbiologist Yves Brun and Brown University colleagues published the paper "Adhesion of single bacterial cells in the micronewton range" in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In the paper, Brun and colleagues reported that the Caulobacter crescentus bacterium secretes a glue-like polysaccharide that may be the strongest adhesive in nature. The scientists found that they had to apply a force equivalent to 70 newtons per square millimeter to remove a single C. crescentus from the inside of a glass pipette. That's five tons per square inch, which is something like three cars piled on top of a spot the size of a quarter. Commercial "super" glue breaks when a shear force of 18 to 28 newtons per square millimeter is applied.

NPR, BBC, CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation), the Associated Press, Discovery Channel News (online), and Business Week magazine all carried the news. So did dozens of other popular news outfits. Why is news about the discovery of a strong adhesive secreted by bacteria such media dynamite?

After engaging in weeks of interviews with reporters from around the world, Brun says simply, "People were interested in the fact that a simple bacterium could attach so strongly to a surface."

"I guess there's always something very intriguing about extremes in nature," says Pam Rutherford, a producer for BBC Science Radio who covered the sticky story for the BBC World Service Program Science in Action.

In other words, something that's stickiest, biggest, fastest, or loudest is more likely to get covered in the press than something that's merely stickier, bigger, faster, louder, or some combination of these. It's easy to succumb to a cynical view of the popular press's penchant for superlatives, but the scientific expansion of knowledge is often driven by research results that have superlatives attached.

Josh Chamot, who works for a large government agency that funded Brun's research, notes the popular aspect of the subject matter, too. Glue isn't like protein receptors or quarks--it's something that everyone uses. "Folks can relate to glue," Chamot says. "Anyone who's broken something and regretted it has frantically reached for the Krazy Glue to quickly fix that vase/appliance/toy before mom/girlfriend/older brother returns home. These are emotional moments, seared into the memory."

Glue is a practical thing, and the discovery made by Brun and colleagues has commercialization potential. "There are obvious applications since this adhesive works on wet surfaces," says Brun. "One possibility would be as a biodegradable surgical adhesive."

The PNAS report also invoked an aspect of "accidental discovery," a common but evocative theme in science. Brun has studied C. crescentus for more than a decade, but it had never occurred to him to look at its adhesive qualities until a lab worker informed Brun that he had trouble removing the bacterium from a glass plate. Rutherford says this is "another great dimension in any science story--an element of serendipity or a scientist being faced with something exciting that he didn't necessarily expect."

Does making a complex scientific discovery like this one into headline news diminish the seriousness of scientific research? Undoubtedly, the answer is "sometimes." But whatever the subject, generating general interest in science news can also convey the importance of basic research and impart an appropriate respect for those who tackle humanity's questions, big and small.

"Hopefully folks take away a better understanding of the research, not just a cute topic for the water cooler," Chamot says.

Many things will have to happen before Caulobacter-brand glue hits the shelves of your local hardware store. Meanwhile, Brun and his colleagues have briefly basked in the glow of a phenomenal discovery before extending a new line of scientific inquiry. "It's all pretty exciting to us," he says. "We're looking forward to the next steps."

--David Bricker