Covering yourself in hagfish slime may not sound like the smartest thing to do… But researchers from Canada’s University of Guelph have discovered that it’s actually not such a bad idea.
The hagfish (which isn’t really a fish in the conventional sense) is a living fossil. It has undergone little to no evolution in the past 300 million years. It has an interesting and effective defence mechanism that can repel even sharks. When threatened, it releases large quantities of protein. This protein, when released into the water, forms threads that turn the immediate environment of the hagfish thick and gooey. The slime, which “smells like dirty sea water”, according to one of the researchers, deters predators from attacking the hagfish.
The researchers have found that the protein threads can be isolated from the slime (via the removal of water and mucous). The protein threads themselves are categorized as ‘intermediate filaments’. Each thread is 100 times smaller than a single human hair. These fine threads can be woven to create fabric that’s as strong as nylon or plastic. With more research, these fabrics can even be used to make clothes! Hagfish produce large amounts of slime in mere seconds. The mere efficiency of this process grants it an advantage over harvesting silk from silkworms. Furthermore, the material is much more sustainable than artificial fibers like nylon and polyester. In the words of the head researcher, Atsuko Negishi, “This work is just the beginning of our efforts to apply what we have learned from animals like hagfishes to the challenge of making high-performance materials from sustainable protein feedstocks.”
The next challenge would be to make the process feasible on an industrial scale. It’s unlikely that slime will be directly harvested from the hagfish in large amounts. Alternatively, the slime-making genes might be transplanted into bacteria, which can be cultured to provide the slime on a much larger and more feasible scale.