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The microscopic network structure of mussel (Mytilus) adhesive plaques


Marine mussels of the genus Mytilus live in the hostile intertidal zone, attached to rocks, bio-fouled surfaces and each other via collagen-rich threads ending in adhesive pads, the plaques. Plaques adhere in salty, alkaline seawater, withstanding waves and tidal currents. Each plaque requires a force of several newtons to detach. Although the molecular composition of the plaques has been well studied, a complete understanding of supra-molecular plaque architecture and its role in maintaining adhesive strength remains elusive. Here, electron microscopy and neutron scattering studies of plaques harvested from Mytilus californianus and Mytilus galloprovincialis reveal a complex network structure reminiscent of structural foams. Two characteristic length scales are observed characterizing a dense meshwork (approx. 100 nm) with large interpenetrating pores (approx. 1 µm). The network withstands chemical denaturation, indicating significant cross-linking. Plaques formed at lower temperatures have finer network struts, from which we hypothesize a kinetically controlled formation mechanism. When mussels are induced to create plaques, the resulting structure lacks a well-defined network architecture, showcasing the importance of processing over self-assembly. Together, these new data provide essential insight into plaque structure and formation and set the foundation to understand the role of plaque structure in stress distribution and toughening in natural and biomimetic materials.

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