University of Guelph researchers have unravelled some of the inner workings of slime produced by one of nature's most bizarre creatures hagfish.
They've learned how the super-strong and mega-long protein threads secreted by the eel-like animals are organized at the cellular level. Their research was published today in the science journal Nature Communications.
The slime-making process has fascinated and perplexed biologists for more than 100 years, says lead author Prof. Douglas Fudge of Guelph's Department of Integrative Biology.
Besides satisfying scientific curiosity, the discovery also provides valuable insights into the quest to produce synthetic versions of hagfish threads for commercial use.
"What we are doing is biomimicry, imitating and getting inspiration from nature to help solve complex human problems," Fudge said.
"We know that hagfish slime has incredible, interesting properties -- we just don't know how it's achieved. We do know that it's a complex process, and the final product is a super fibre that is almost as strong as spider silk. We need to figure out how the cells make these fibres that are so special."
Hagfishes are an ancient group of bottom-dwelling creatures that have remained relatively unchanged for more than 300 million years. When threatened, they secrete a gelatinous slime containing mucus and tens of thousands of protein threads coiled like skeins of yarn.
The threads are incredibly strong and extremely long, and can uncoil rapidly without tangling. "It's pretty amazing, considering that one of these threads is the equivalent of a rope that is one centimetre in diameter and 1.5 kilometres long," Fudge said.
"How do you coil a rope that long in such a way that it doesn't tangle when it unravels?"
The protein threads could be spun and woven into novel biomaterials, which could provide a sustainable alternative to synthetic fibres such as Nyl
|Contact: Douglas Fudge|
University of Guelph