The role of coacervation and phase transitions in the sandcastle worm adhesive system

Russell J. Stewart, Ching Shuen Wang, In Taek Song, Joshua P. Jones

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

124 Citations (Scopus)


Sandcastle worms, Phragmatopoma californica (Fewkes), live along the western coast of North America. Individual worms build tubular shells under seawater by gluing together sandgrains and biomineral particles with a multipart, rapid-set, self-initiating adhesive. The glue comprises distinct sets of condensed, oppositely charged polyelectrolytic components—polyphosphates, polysulfates, and polyamines—that are separately granulated and stored at high concentration in distinct cell types. The pre-organized adhesive modules are secreted separately and intact, but rapidly fuse with minimal mixing and expand into a crack-penetrating complex fluid. Within 30 s of secretion into seawater, the fluid adhesive transitions (sets) into a porous solid adhesive joint. The nano- and microporous structure of the foamy solid adhesive contributes to the strength and toughness of the adhesive joint through several mechanisms. A curing agent (catechol oxidase), co-packaged into both types of adhesive granules, covalently cross-links the adhesive and becomes a structural component of the final adhesive joint. The overall effectiveness of the granulated sandcastle glue is more a product of the cellular sorting and packaging mechanisms, the transition from fluid to solid following secretion, and its final biphasic porous structure as it is of its composition or any particular amino acid modification.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)88-96
Number of pages9
JournalAdvances in Colloid and Interface Science
Publication statusPublished - Jan 1 2017


  • Bioadhesive
  • Complex coacervation
  • Condensed polyelectrolytes
  • Phragmatopoma californica
  • Sabellariidae
  • Sandcastle worm

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Surfaces and Interfaces
  • Physical and Theoretical Chemistry
  • Colloid and Surface Chemistry


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