The same bacteria that eats flesh can make a super glue used to bind molecules.
Dr. Mark Howarth, with his graduate student Bijan Zakeri in Oxford University's department of biochemistry, developed an adhesive that sticks molecules together, nearly inseparably.
They used the bacteria Streptococcus pyogenes, infamous for eating flesh when there is a serious infection and strep throat when it is mild. S. pyogenes makes a protein called FBab that forms a chemical bond between two groups of amino acids. And it does so really, really well.
So Howarth and Zakeri decided to see if they could get that bond to separate and then come back together again. Their thinking was that if you tack on a molecule to the ends of the protein, you could join them and they would stay together — just like two pieces of wood, plastic or metal joined by superglue.
The two fragments of the protein were nicknamed "Spycatcher" and "SpyTag." Once the scientists started experimenting with them, they found that the two stuck together and separated just as hoped. On top of that, the proteins didn't stick to anything else. And the molecular bond held at a wide range of temperatures. The bond even stood up to chemical detergents.
More importantly, the two molecules bonded without a lot of the fancy techniques usually used to link biomolecules. Ordinarily you need catalysts, or UV light. The problem is that if you want to stick molecules together in a living cell, that UV might not be a good idea as it can kill living organisms.
This won't be the kind of glue that repairs your broken plastic bowl or broken glass (at least not yet). The first use will probably be in laboratories where scientists often have to stick biological molecules together, such as enzymes. In the future, though, there is a lot of promise — one idea is to stick the chemicals in plants that make energy out of sunlight. Another is to join enzymes on an industrial scale.
Image: Wikimedia Commons / Centers For Disease Control and Prevention