A harmless bacteria found in fresh and salt water could be nature's strongest glue.

Indiana University biologist Yves Brun and colleagues at Brown University are studying the properties of Caulobacter crescentus for potential industrial and medical uses. "You can imagine preparing the hulls of ships, for example, in the water without having them to dry dock, which would save a lot of money," he says and adds that there are countless medical applications because tissue adhesives need to bind to surfaces that are wet. "Most of our tissues are wet surfaces and in addition our tissue fluids are salty and this glue works on wet, salty surfaces. So, it is perfect," he says.

C. crescentus attaches itself to submerged rocks with an incredibly strong chain of sugar molecules, three or four times more adhesive than commercial, super-strong glue. The amount applied to the surface of a small coin could withstand the pulling force of an adult elephant.

In lab experiments, the bacterium attached itself to the side of a thin glass pipette. Brun says another natural chemical helped unstick it. "You can add an enzyme called lysozyme which breaks these types of sugar polysaccharides and that will greatly reduce the strength of this adhesive."

Brun says more research is needed to better understand the adhesive properties of the bacteria before it can be developed into a commercial product. "We have some indirect evidence and just based on common sense, I'd be really surprised if these polysaccharides were the whole story. So, I expect that there are other adhesive components. The other step is to work on increasing the production of this glue by the bacterium."

The work is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.