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Science and Innovations

Earth Notes: Caddisflies Inspire Medical Innovation

Fred Hayes for the University of Utah

Imagine an adhesive that could take the place of pins and plates when fixing broken bones, or that could replace staples and sutures during surgery. But creating a glue that sticks to a wet surface is no easy task. That's why University of Utah researchers are taking their cues from a proven master of the art - the diminutive caddisfly.

Like their cocoon-making cousins, butterflies and moths, caddisfly larvae produce silk in their salivary glands. Some species use this silk to build webs for catching food. Others use it to create a silk-lined tube armored with sand, tiny shells, twigs and gravel, which they live in and drag about.

Unlike butterfly and moth larvae, caddisfly larvae live underwater in ponds and streams where they're known as "rock rollers" to fly fishermen. Their unique silk can stick to wet surfaces. As University of Utah bioengineer Russell Stewart points out, caddisflies have been doing this for more than 150 million years.

People have long emulated nature's technical innovations. But the practice has only recently garnered an official name - biomimicry. By mimicking the chemical make-up of caddisfly silk, Stewart and his research team are working to create a synthetic version of this underwater adhesive.

To pass muster for medical use, the adhesive must function within the body's unique environment, remain where it is applied, cure without shrinkage or swelling, and be non-toxic when applied and as it breaks down. That's a formidable challenge. But the researchers hope to meet it, following the caddisfly's innovative lead.