A recently patented adhesive made by Kansas State Univ. researchers could
become a staple in every astronaut’s toolbox.
The patent, “pH dependent adhesive peptides,” was issued to the
Kansas State Univ. Research Foundation, a nonprofit corporation responsible for
managing technology transfer activities of K-State. The patent covers an adhesive
made from peptides that increases in strength as moisture is removed.
It was created by John Tomich, professor of biochemistry, and Xiuzhi
“Susan” Sun, professor of grain science and industry. Assisting in
the research was Takeo Iwamoto, an adjunct professor in biochemistry, and
Xinchun Shen, a former postdoctoral researcher.
“The adhesive we ended up developing was one that formed nanoscale
fibrils that become entangled, sort of like Velcro. It has all these little
hooks that come together,” Tomich said. “It’s a mechanical type of
adhesion, though, not a chemical type like most commercial adhesives.”
Because of its unusual properties, applications will most likely be outside
the commercial sector, Tomich said.
For example, unlike most adhesives that become brittle as moisture levels
decrease, the K-State adhesive’s bond only becomes stronger. Because of this,
it could be useful in low-moisture environments like outer space, where
astronauts could use it to reattach tiles to a space shuttle.
Conversely, its deterioration from water could also serve a purpose.
“It could be used as a timing device or as a moisture detection
device,” Tomich said. “There could be a circuit or something that
when the moisture got to a certain level, the adhesive would fail and break the
circuit, sounding an alarm.”
The project began nearly a decade ago as Sun and a postdoctal researcher
were studying the adhesive properties of soybean proteins. Needing an
instrument to synthesize protein peptides, Sun contacted Tomich.
Serendipitously, Tomich’s lab had developed a peptide some time ago that had
cement-like properties. Tomich said he knew it was unusual but had set it aside
to pursue other interests.
“When Dr. Sun and I resurrected this protein, we didn’t use the whole
thing—just a segment of it,” Tomich said. “We isolated a certain
segment where the cells are highly attracted to each other and form these
Since their collaboration Tomich has taken the same sequence and changed the
way it was designed. The new peptide, he said, will have an eye toward gene
Sun’s lab is trying to optimize the sequence against adhesion, as well as
study how peptide sequences influence adhesion properties and surface energy.
“I continue studying protein structures and functional properties in
terms of adhesion—folding, aggregation, surface energy, and gelling properties—so
we can rationally design and develop bio-based adhesives using plant
proteins,” she said.
The research foundation is working with the National Institute for Strategic
Technology Acquisition and Commercialization to license the patent.