The US Navy Is Synthesizing Hagfish Slime to Defend Against Torpedoes and Sharks

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Apparently, engineering and borrowing technology know no bounds. Naval engineers are taking modified hagfish slime and are developing it to protect ships from torpedoes and create shark repellents.

Earlier this year, the United States Navy announced an ambitious, and rather bizarre plan to recreate a "biomaterial to assist military personnel." In essence, Naval engineers are looking to use hagfish slime as a defense mechanism.

The US Navy Is Synthesizing Hagfish Slime to Defend Against Torpedoes and Sharks

Naval engineers demonstrate the synthetic slime elasticity. [Image Source: United States Navy]

According to the United States press release addressing the new tactic,

"A team of U.S. Navy scientists and engineers at Naval Surface Warfare Center, Panama City Division (NSWC PCD) have successfully recreated a natural material used for marine wildlife defense to assist military personnel."

Borrowing technology from hagfish: Artificially developing strong slime

Last year, we reported that a team of researchers from the University of Guelph were extracting fibers from hagfish slime and were converting them into textile fibers. Apparently, hagfish has also garnered attention from the United States Navy after a team of researchers and scientists started working with a synthetic slime derived from the fish to create a truly ingenuitive defense technique.

Hagfish are a rather remarkable species - they are not a fish, nor are they a hag. Without a set of jaws, claws, or any other visible defense mechanism, they would appear to most as an easy prey. Despite the lack of traditional defense techniques, hagfish have survived for hundreds of millions of years by defending themselves with mucus. 

The US Navy Is Synthesizing Hagfish Slime to Defend Against Torpedoes and Sharks

[Image Source: United States Navy]

When threatened, the hagfish unleashes a concoction of coiled up proteins which, when in contact with water, extend up to 30 cm long.

"The coiled up thread behaves like a spring and quickly unravels upon contact with water due to stored energy," said Kincer. "The mucin binds to water and constrains the flow between the micro channels created by the thread dispersion. The interaction between the thread, mucin, and seawater creates a three-dimensional, viscoelastic network.

A shark or other predators trying to catch an easy prey chomp down on the creature, forcing it to unleash a rather unpleasant mucus that quickly expands into the mouths of unwilling predators.

The US Navy Is Synthesizing Hagfish Slime to Defend Against Torpedoes and Sharks

[Image Source: United States Navy]

From fish slime to naval defense

Biochemist Dr. Josh Kogot and Materials Engineer Dr. Ryan Kincer successfully developed a synthetic slime that mimics the same properties as hagfish mucus.

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The US Navy Is Synthesizing Hagfish Slime to Defend Against Torpedoes and Sharks

[Image Source: United States Navy]

The researchers synthetically created the slime by genetically modifying E.coli bacteria to produce the alpha and gamma proteins present in Pacific hagfish slime.

"The synthetic hagfish slime may be used for ballistics protection, firefighting, anti-fouling, diver protection, or anti-shark spray," says Kogot. "The possibilities are endless. Our goal is to produce a substance that can act as non-lethal and non-kinetic defense to protect the warfighter."

According to the report, a slime capable of mimicking and selectively improving upon hagfish slime could be a valuable asset to the United States Navy.

"Researchers have called the hagfish slime one of the most unique biomaterials known," Kincer adds. "For the U.S. Navy to have its hands on it or a material that acts similar would be beneficial. From a tactical standpoint, it would be interesting to have a material that can change the properties of the water at dilute concentrations in a matter of seconds."

Currently, the team is investigating other innovative applications of their synthetic hagfish slime.

As of now, it is unclear how the Navy anticipates using the slime to defend against ballistic attacks.

Perhaps ships will be able to discard vast quantities which will change the viscosity of the water, causing incoming explosives to preemptively detonate. Furthermore, the material may act as a shock barrier, preventing shock waves from causing extensive damage.

The slime's ability to disipate shortly after expanding in water will enable the ship to quickly evade without getting caught in the slimy mess.

However, as of now, the details are unclear as to exactly how the United States Navy proposes to use the slime. Nevertheless, it most certainly is a unique defense technique, all thanks to the hagfish.

Featured Image Source: United States Navy and Wikipedia

Via United States Navy

SEE ALSO: US Air Force Attaches High-Energy Laser to AH-64 Apache Attack Helicopter

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