Hagfish Slime

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Atsuko Negishi (l) holds up a hagfish covered in slime, with Tim Winegard (m), and Douglas Fudge (r). Source: BBC News Magazine

If I were to ask you to name one of the oldest known organisms on the planet, there is a good chance many of you would answer with “dinosaurs.” However, there is one lesser known species that dates back much farther: the hagfish (AKA the “slime eel”).

The hagfish is located deep in the oceans throughout much of the world.  This creature is unique in that it possesses around 100 glands along it’s 4ft body that secretes exudate into the surrounding water when the hagfish is under stress. This bodily secretion serves as a defense mechanism for the hagfish as it posseses no other means through which to defend itself, such as jaws.

Something very interesting happens when hagfish exudate mixes with seawater: a mucousy, cohesive mass of slime is formed. Very little exudate is required to make a very large mass of slime – a typical slime mass of 0.9 L contains only around 90 mg exudate! (Fudge et. al)

This “slime” is made up of keratin-like intermediate filaments and through research by Fudge et. al have determined it to be “one of the softest elastic biomaterials known.”

When removed from water and allowed to dry, the slime become silky and very similar to spider silk. This has led researchers to ponder the viability of using hagfish slime to create clothing ranging from athletic gear to bulletproof vests. However, as of now there have been no successful attempts at creating “hagfish farms,” and many scientists believe their best bet is to attempt to recreate the proteins in a lab setting. Fortunately, unlike spider silk, the protein filaments in hagfish slime are much smaller and this should make replicating them a bit easier.

This is a shining example of a bioinspired product. By taking a natural product intended purely for defense, we have been able to adapt it in a way that would greatly benefit us in the future.

Making “slime clothing” is still quite a ways off and will require a good deal more research, but in my opinion it is an endeavor well worth pursuing. If scientists are able to make this product a reality, we could potentially eliminate the need for oil-based synthetic fibers such as spandex and nylon.

Sources:

Non-linear viscoelasticity of hagfish slime  http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0020746210001629

Hagfish slime: The clothing of the future?  http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-21954779

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