Stretched enough, the protein molecules snap into different arrangements, becoming stronger and tougher, and more akin to spider dragline silks and high performance synthetics like Kevlar, Fudge said. That suggests more applications, including anything from bullet-proof vests to ropes or artificial tendons.
Scientists hope to duplicate the thread-making process, but so far, synthetic versions have proven inferior to natural slime threads.
"If we have any chance of making these things artificially, we have to know how the hagfishes produce these threads inside of their cells," Fudge said.
"We decided to figure out how the thread is organized first, because it may give us clues as to how the cells make it."
Fudge and Guelph researchers Timothy Winegard, Julia Herr and Mark Bernards teamed up with neuro-imaging specialists from universities in California and Michigan. They examined the pattern of slime thread coiling within developing cells using light and electron microscopy and 3D imaging and modelling.
"For the first time, we had the technology to study the morphology and structure of the threads in the cells," Fudge said.
They found that the 15-centimetre-long protein threads are arranged in "skeins" of 15 to 20 conical layers of loops.
Changes in nuclear morphology, size and position explain how the threads are coiled in cells, and the threads change in length and width as cells mature. The next step is to unravel the biochemical and biophysical mechanism behind those changes. "This study provided information about how the thread coils and fills the cells as it grows," Fudge said.
"And these results led us to some very strong clues about how the threads are actually made, and figuring that out is the ultimate goal."
|Contact: Douglas Fudge|
University of Guelph