Some people use social media to keep up with breaking news. Some sign in to catch up with friends and meet business contacts. But a group of researchers in Galway, Ireland, is using Twitter and Facebook to find... barnacles. Barnacles?
It’s not as peculiar as it may sound. By encouraging members of the public to alert them if they find clumps of barnacles washed ashore on the west coast of Ireland, the researchers hope to peel back some of the mysteries behind how the animals stick to surfaces. And what they find could even help to inform the development of new synthetic glues.
But Dr Anne Marie Power and Jaimie-Leigh Jonker at NUI Galway aren’t in search of just any old barnacles. They are specifically after large, stalked, goose barnacles (Lepas anatifera). The marine crustacean produces an adhesive made up of several proteins and can affix to material such as wood, plastic, glass and even other animals and plants, explains Jonker, who is doing a PhD on the goose barnacle’s sticky properties.
“Our morphological results show that the adhesive is produced by large gland cells and all of the adhesive components appeared to be produced together in the same cell,” she explains. “This is quite different to the adhesive systems of other animals, where components are separated prior to being extruded from the body.”
The goose barnacle adhesive also seems to have its own way of sticking around: the NUI Galway research, which is funded by Science Foundation Ireland and the Irish Marine Institute, has not found in the goose barnacle the types of protein residues that are common in other animal adhesives. Teasing out the modus operandi of this particular crustacean’s underwater stickiness will help the researchers get a better grip in how it conducts ‘wet adhesion’, explains Dr Power.
“The fact that the barnacle's natural adhesive works in a saline environment means that there are possible applications for use inside the human body,” she notes. “That said, we are still a long way from this point. This work is more advanced in other marine animals like mussels, but barnacles do not use the same system as mussels and so there are potential novelties there. Besides, the more that we know about the many different marine adhesives, the more likely we are to succeed in developing new biomimetic adhesives.”
So where do Twitter and Facebook come in? One of the challenges in the project to date has been to gather specimens. Goose barnacles can dehydrate and die quickly when washed ashore, so they have to be rescued promptly and moved to an aquarium. In the past, the researchers trawled the beaches several times a week themselves, but it was a slow and largely unsuccessful way to find the sporadically stranded barnacles, says Jonker. So the scientists have started a social media campaign this summer to get people to tell them when they find the sticky marine creatures.
“It is difficult to be in the right place at the right time to find these animals, so we are now appealing to the public to help,” she explains. "If somebody happens to notice our publicity campaign and then they see some of these barnacles washed ashore, they could contact us and we would find a way to get there as soon as possible to collect the animals. They can survive a few hours on the beach, and even longer if they are in a bucket or pool of seawater and if they can be kept cool."
Once retrieved, the barnacles will be kept in an aquarium, and the researchers will examine gene expression in the animals and chemical bonds in the adhesive. “Our experience in previous years has been that these animals will mostly wash ashore in August and September, so now is a good time to spread the word,” says Jonker. “The response so far has been quite positive, with many people saying that they have seen these animals on the beach before and didn't know what they were. Well, now they know and hopefully they will see them again and contact us.”
See @BarnacleHunt on Twitter, or search for The Amazing Goose Barnacle on Facebook