Slime Engineering with Hagfish
Hagfish are truly perplexing creatures; they technically not really a fish, and they secrete a bizarre slime that apparently engineers are turning in to high-tech products.
These ancient snake-like creatures dwell on the bottom of the ocean, surviving through their use of a unique, completely unorthodox, rather disgusting, and as it turns out, incredibly useful defense technique. When provoked, Hagfish release a small amount of mucus that quickly absorbs water around it, creating a thick slurry concoction of slime and water which increases its size many times greater than its original proportion.
Hagfish slime [Image Source: IGEM]
Unlike fish, Hagfish do not have a set of jaws to protect themselves and so have developed a unique way to deal with predators. As it turns out, exerting a repulsive slime that easily chokes out a predator is a surprisingly effective defense mechanism, one that has kept the species alive for more than 500 million years
However, the slimy mucus protection provides a lot more than a defense mechanism and YouTube entertainment. The mucus also possesses some truly remarkable characteristics that make it an ideal candidate for an alternative clothing material.
The slime is made out of tightly compact protein fibers that unravel underwater, allowing them to stretch out up to 30 cm long, providing a promising material future sustainable clothing.
"When you stretch the fibers in water and then dry them out they take on properties that are very silk-like,"
says Douglas Fudge, who lead the research project at the University of Guelph.
The fibers are incredibly thin and extremely strong, giving Fudge and his colleagues a truly bizarre and rather interesting idea. For a long time, scientists have been searching for natural alternatives to synthetic fibers, such as nylon and spandex- which are made from oil, a non-renewable resource. Hagfish fibers are made of proteins which are considered renewable.
"Proteins are a renewable resource because we can get organisms to make them,"
The research has been ongoing for three years now with scientists uncovering new and cheaper alternatives to spool the Hagfish slime, a truly daunting task.
Of course, scientists are not looking to turn Hagfish into a breeding machine to develop materials for humans. Armed with a delicious name and an interesting concept, Fudge and his team are developing similar synthetic variations by studying and artificially replicating the slime.
Some scientists are even developing genetically engineered bacteria to create the silk-like threads. Although the technology is far from large scale production, the biologists remain hopeful to one day create a new material able to replace spandex and nylon.
"With increased interest and increased support and collaboration," the researchers say "it could be something not too far into the future."