Strong and slimy | Science News for Students

Strong and slimy

Scientists spin threads from snotlike secretions of hagfish
Jan 10, 2013 — 3:31 pm EST

Scientist Atsuko Negishi holds a hagfish in one hand and its slime in the other. She studies the ooze in the lab of materials scientist David Fudge, at far right. Credit: Andra Zommers/University of Guelph

Big marine predators that try to snack on a hagfish get a nasty surprise. When threatened, the slender hagfish releases enough snotty goo to gag a shark.

Materials scientists from Douglas Fudge’s laboratory at the University of Guelph in Canada have now found a way to create strong, stretchy fibers from the slime. These might one day be used in parachutes, packing materials or even — if you’re brave enough to wear it — clothing. The researchers introduced the idea of making fabric from hagfish mucus in November.

“There’s very little that’s been known about hagfish. People don’t like them and think they are gross,” Vincent Zintzen told Science News. He’s a research scientist at the National Museum of New Zealand in Wellington. Zintzen did not work on the new hagfish study. He notes that hagfish slime is “totally different from anything that we’ve seen in the natural world.”

The slime oozes from pores on the sides of the fish’s body. Some types of hagfish have more than 100 pores.

Researchers from Fudge’s lab collected buckets and buckets of slime for their experiments. But they couldn’t just ask for it. They had to first put the animals to sleep and dry them off. Then they administered small electric shocks. This provoked the animals to release the thick, heavy slime.

Hagfish slime contains tiny fibers that give it strength and help keep it from tearing apart. (Those fibers also help gag any shark or other hungry predator.) The fibers are made of proteins similar to those found in fingernails and hair. (Proteins are often called the “building blocks of life.”) The Canadian scientists used the slime proteins to create threads about as long as an unsharpened No. 2 pencil, but much skinnier.

Hagfish threads have remarkable tensile strength: That means they can stretch a long way before breaking — almost as far as spider silk can, explains Fudge. What’s more, he notes, fabrics from hagfish threads would be more environmentally friendly than many modern materials, like nylon (which comes from petroleum).

Power Words

tensile Capable of being drawn out or stretched.

predator An animal that naturally preys on others.

protein Compounds that are an essential part of all living organisms. Proteins do the work inside a cell. They may be parts of body tissues such as muscle, hair and collagen. Proteins may also be enzymes and antibodies.

materials science The study of how a material’s structure relates to its properties.

Further Reading

R. Ehrenberg. “Repellent slime has material virtues.” Science News. Dec. 19, 2012.

S. Ornes. “Eating can be skin deep.” Science News for Kids. April 7, 2011.

Watch a hagfish in action as it escapes from a shark.

E. Sohn. “Earth-friendly fabrics.” Science News for Kids. Dec. 11, 2006.