Christmas may be months away, but a familiar little berry is in the news. The plant is best-known as a hanging holiday decoration. But scientists say the sticky berries of European mistletoe may have important medical applications.
European mistletoe is the common name for a green plant that grows in Europe. Other mistletoe varieties grow in Africa and North America. The plant features clusters of white berries.
By the 18th century, mistletoe had become a Christmas decoration in some cultures. Tradition says that couples caught under the “kissing bough” must exchange a smooch.
All mistletoe species are parasitic. They depend on other plants to survive. They infest a wide range of host trees, which often are weakened by mistletoe infestations. An overabundance of mistletoe can kill a host tree.
Mistletoe’s characteristic white berries contain an ultra-stiff fibrous substance called viscin. It enables the berry-seeds to stick to a host tree.
Scientists have experimented with mistletoe for centuries. Some even tested mistletoe in cures for cancer and epilepsy. (So far, none have been approved by the U.S. government.)
Viscin itself, however, is largely unresearched. This spring, a paper in an online journal of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science reported that viscin readily adheres to human skin and cartilage and to synthetic materials. Such stick-to-itiveness could be a significant medical finding.
Researchers recognized that stretchy, sticky viscin could seal wounds or cover skin—and then become un-sticky under humid conditions.
“I wore a thin film of viscin on my skin for three days to observe its adhesive qualities and was able to remove it from my fingers afterwards by simply rubbing them together,” says Nils Horbelt, another paper author.
The viscin discovery happened when Matthew Harrington, a senior author on the paper, saw his daughter playing with a mistletoe berry. The white orb “started sticking to everything,” he says, adding, “I was intrigued.” After all, Harrington’s expertise is with adhesives found in nature—and developing materials from them.
Researchers discovered that processed wet viscin fibers become sticky. They can be stretched into thin films or made into 3-D structures. A single berry can create a thread over six feet long!
Harrington finds it hard to explain viscin’s stickiness to so many surfaces like plastics, glass, and metals.
Abundant, ecofriendly, and renewable: Viscin is another example of the greatness and goodness of Earth’s Creator!
Researchers hope to further study the chemistry in the berry—and to replicate it. Mistletoe might soon get a revised image as more than a kissing bough.
Why? God filled the Earth with more good and gracious gifts than humans have eyes to see or minds to comprehend. We can praise Him for His favor in creating such a wonderful world!