Invasive Mussels and the Future of Material Science: Uncovering a 12 Million-Year-Old Secret

Zebra Mussels

A groundbreaking study links a 12-million-year-old genetic event to the proliferation of invasive mussels and inspires new sustainable material development based on mussel fibers. (Zebra Mussels.) Credit: US Fish and Wildlife Service

Recent research has identified a key evolutionary event that has enabled the widespread impact of invasive mussels in North America. This discovery also paves the way for the development of sustainable materials inspired by mussel fibers.

A recent study from researchers in Canada and Germany has revealed that an unlikely event, occurring over 12 million years ago , played an important role in shaping one of Canada’s most damaging invasive species.

The Threat of Zebra and Quagga Mussels

Zebra and quagga mussels, belonging to the Dreissenid family, are widespread freshwater invasive species throughout North America that present a significant danger to native ecosystems by competing for resources. Using a fibrous anchor called a byssus, Dreissenid mussels contribute to biofouling on surfaces and obstruct intake structures in power stations and water treatment plants.

“This new study, which looks into the way these mussels stick to surfaces, may help improve strategies against biofouling, a problem causing millions in damages in Canada alone” shares co-author and lead McGill Professor, Matthew Harrington.

Unexpected Evolutionary Insight

Surprisingly, researchers discovered that a previously undocumented event contributed to the mussel’s resilience as a species. University of Göttingen Professor and co-author Daniel Jackson explains, “More than 12 million years ago, a single bacterium transferred a single gene precursor to a single mussel endowing their descendants with the ability to make these fibers. Given their crucial role in mussel attachment in freshwater habitats, this evolutionary occurrence has enabled the widespread and harmful expansion of this mussel family globally.”

This research, marking important progress in the understanding of invasive mussels and their attachment mechanisms, could offer potential solutions to mitigate their environmental and economic impact in Canada.

The study also sheds light on how mussel fibers could inspire the development of sustainable materials.

Sustainable Materials Inspired by Mussel Biology

“This research not only advances our understanding of mussel evolution and biofouling, but also presents an exciting opportunity for the development of novel materials,” said Harrington who is also co-director of McGill Institute of Advanced Materials. “Dreissenid byssus fibers, which resemble spider silk structurally, could inspire future development of tough polymer fibers, contributing to more durable and sustainable materials typically used in textiles and technical plastics.

Unveiling the Secrets of Mussel Fibers

“We found that the building blocks of the fibers are massive coiled-coil proteins, the largest ever found,” Harrington said. These proteins, structurally similar to those found in human hair, were found to transform into silk-like beta crystallites through simple application of stretching forces during formation. This method of fiber fabrication is much simpler than spider silk formation, potentially offering an easier route toward biotechnological manufacture of sustainable fibers – an industry currently dominated by artificial spider silks.

Reference: “Invasive mussels fashion silk-like byssus via mechanical processing of massive horizontally acquired coiled coils” by Miriam Simmons, Nils Horbelt, Tara Sverko, Ernesto Scoppola, Daniel J. Jackson and Matthew J. Harrington, 20 November 2023, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2311901120

1 Comment on "Invasive Mussels and the Future of Material Science: Uncovering a 12 Million-Year-Old Secret"

  1. Please add barnacles to this list and reserach.

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