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Dr. Jonathan Wilker

Dr. Jonathan Wilker

Marine Biological Materials: Characterization, Synthetic Mimics, and Applications

The oceans abound with a fascinating array of materials produced by nature. Barnacles cement themselves to rocks. Starfish use adhesives for locomotion. Oysters create aggregate reef structures. Mussels generate an impressive adhesive that can bond to nearly any surface, including Teflon (polytetrafluoroethylene, PTFE). Our laboratory is working to understand how such biological materials function, design synthetic mimics, and develop applications for these new materials.

Characterization of Marine Biological Materials: Discovering How Nature Makes Materials

Ongoing studies include characterizing the composition, bonding, and performance of these biomaterials produced by mussels, barnacles, oysters, and other species. Here the chemistry, biochemistry, and biology of adhesion are all being examined. In order to obtain chemical insights on specific bonding motifs in the materials, we are using synthetic peptide models to obtain atom-by-atom level detail of the cross-links present in mussel adhesive. At a biochemical level we are extracting adhesive proteins, characterizing proteins, and exploring how such macromolecules can bring about bulk adhesion. Several methods including spectroscopy, reactivity, and microscopy are being used to provide direct observation of the bonding. More biological work with live animals includes changes made to the water chemistry and then quantifying the influences upon adhesion. With all of these studies we keep in mind mechanical performance of the materials. For example, we are uncovering links between protein cross-linking and adhesion strengths of the animals.

Figure 1. Left to right: An oyster reef, a mussel sticking to glass, barnacles, and a kelp forest.

Synthetic Polymer Mimics: New Materials Inspired By Nature

As we learn how sea creatures stick we can use this information to create new classes of synthetic materials. Bioinspired synthetic materials can have advantages over the natural versions such as the ability to tailor the material for a given property (e.g., adhesion, modulus, porosity, etc.) as well as provide access to large quantities of material. We have found that complex adhesive proteins can be mimicked with simple polymer backbones into which we incorporate biological cross-linking chemistry.

Applications: Developing Biomedical Materials, High Performance Adhesives, and Coatings

The underwater adhesion and high bonding strengths of marine biological materials bring to mind many applications ranging from wet-setting biomedical adhesives to new materials with tailored moduli. Current materials engineering efforts rely on our abilities to alter the polymer compositions and carry out the syntheses on large scales. As we incorporate more advanced functionalities into the polymers we are tailoring the materials for specific uses. Perhaps most in demand are new adhesive materials for biomedical procedures and devices. At the moment there are no adhesives available that are simultaneously wet setting, strong bonding, and non-toxic. Marine biology may have already solved this problem, hence our exploration of these materials for bi


  • B.S., University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1991
  • Ph.D., Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1996
  • Postdoctoral Scholar, California Institute of Technology, 1999


  • One of the Ten Best Teachers in the School of Science, 2005
  • One of the Ten Best Teachers in the School of Science, 2004
  • Research Fellow, 2002
  • Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation Young Investigator Award, 2001
  • National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development Award (CAREER), 2001


List of publications