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Hagfish Slime May Help Scientists Create Super-Absorbent Adhesives

Jan 25, 2016 06:37 PM EST
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Hagfish secrete a slime when approached by predators that has caught the attention of scientists from the ETH Zurich. With further study they hope to harness the suffocating goop for human use. 

While Atlantic hagfish (Myxine glutinosa) isn't all that attractive at first glance with its worm-like shape, it has defied all odds and survived for 300 million years, outliving dinosaurs and living through warm phases and glacial periods. Even today, the hagfish continues to populate the sea at vast depths, according to a news release

The slime produced by a hagfish is an extraordinary defense mechanism: When the fish is attacked, it secretes slime that gels within a split second, even in cold water. This slime essentially suffocates any predator, thus allowing a captured hangfish to escape unharmed.

"As a chemist and material scientist, I couldn't help but wonder what this slime consists of and what factors allow it to immobilize such enormous amounts of water," Dr. Simon Kuster, research supervisor, said in the release. 

Preliminary experiments revealed the components for the slime are produced in special ventral glands. Two types of cells are embedded within the gland: threads of protein between six and 12 inches long and mucin, the main component of snot. Researchers say the threads are like spider silk, incredibly tough and elastic when moist, and the mucin sits between them, making them slimy.

When in danger, these cells are released intermittently through pores running along the hangfish's sides and then interact with the surrounding seawater to form the suffocating mass. Therefore, researchers say, the slime is nearly 100 percent water and just 0.004 percent gelling agent. This suggests creating the slime requires very little energy. 

In the latest study, researchers tried to mimic the hagfish gel in order to create novel "super hydrogels." Although further research is required, researchers say their slime could lead to new super-absorbent materials that can be used in plasters or baby diapers.

Their study was recently published in the journal ACS Biomaterials Science & Engineering.

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