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From Goo to Glue: Sarah Rabice '14 is working on how to turn slug goo into a medical adhesive.

Written by Kristin Leffler
3/18/2014

Sarah Rabice '14 at work in the lab of biology professor Andy Smith

When Sarah Rabice ’14 first started doing research with biology professor Andy Smith, she knew he studied slugs, but she didn’t fully understand the significance of it.

“I definitely did not understand and appreciate the importance and growing relevance of the fields of biomimetics and bioadhesives,” Rabice said. “Andy’s knowledge of so many fields and his ability to integrate that knowledge into a comprehensive area of study is incredible.”

Biomimetics is the science of adapting designs from nature to create materials or machines. For instance, after seeing burs stick to a dog’s coat, a scientist was inspired to invent Velcro. Similarly inspired, Smith is studying how the sticky glue secreted by slugs could be used to make adhesives that one day might replace the stitches used in many medical settings.

THE DISCOVERY

Smith discovered the power of slug glue during his first week in Ithaca, when he picked up a slug in his backyard.

"It started secreting this ooze all over my fingers, and they started sticking together,” he said. The gel could not be easily removed with paper towels or by washing with soap. “And that was an ‘ah-ha’ moment,” he said, a moment that led him to do extensive research on how the common slug is able to turn the slippery slime by which it traverses the ground into such a powerful glue. That glue could lead to a replacement for stitches and would be a major improvement over current medical glues, which can fail in warm, moist applications inside the body.

“Gel like this would make an ideal medical adhesive,” Smith said. “It would stick to wet surfaces, and no matter how much the tissue flexed and bent, the gel would flex and bend with it. There would be no leakage or scarring.”

THE RESEARCH

Over the last decade, Smith and his students have been slowly unlocking the biochemistry behind the slug’s amazing secretion. He and his students have determined that ions of metal help the gel stiffen, forming powerful links between the polymers. This year he plans to use a method called high-throughput sequencing to determine the exact structure of the glue.

Plenty of other animals ooze secretions that have potential applications for humans, he says. "Long term, I envision scientists figuring out different ways of making gels that could be useful, [just as these] animals do,” he said.

THE MENTOR

Smith is also a mentor to the undergraduates who assist in his lab, and together they have authored research papers that have been published in peer-reviewed scientific journals such as the Journal of Experimental Biology.

Rabice has spent several semesters in Smith’s lab. She notes that he encourages students to become more independent as thinkers and objective scientists. The research methods that Rabice has learned under Smith’s tutelage have solidified her interest in pursuing a medical degree, she says, and helped her realize the similarities between how scientists and doctors solve problems.

"Researching has helped me push the limits of my own creativity and innovation,” she said. “Understanding how much more there is to know about that topic has definitely been inspiring to me in pursuing education in general."

Smith prizes the opportunity to help facilitate this personal growth. “You see how independent they become, how creative, how good at coming up with really logical, interesting ideas. It's very rewarding to see."   



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