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Biotech Canada Science Idle

Hagfish Slime Could Make Super-Strong Clothes 82

Having the ability to create a 20 liter cloud of slime and tie themselves in knots, hagfish have always been one of my favorite deep-sea denizens. Being a living slime dispenser has not won the species many fans however, with the notable exceptions of Mike Rowe and Dr. Egon Spengler. All that is about to change thanks to the work of a research team at Canada’s University of Guelph. They've found that hagfish slime might be used to make new plastics and even super-strong fabrics. From the article: "A research team at Canada’s University of Guelph managed to harvest the slime from the fish, dissolve it in liquid, and then reassemble its structure by spinning it like silk. It’s an important first step in being able to process the hagfish slime into a useable material, according to Atsuko Negishi, a research assistant and lead author on the paper in this week’s journal Biomacromolecules. 'We’re trying to understand how they make these threads and how we can learn from that to make protein-based fibers that have excellent mechanical properties,' Negishi said. 'The first step is can we harvest the threads. It turns out that is doable.'"
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Hagfish Slime Could Make Super-Strong Clothes

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  • by Solandri ( 704621 ) on Thursday December 06, 2012 @03:12PM (#42206629)
    Synthetics like nylon are generally made by going down the energy gradient. That is, you start with something high in energy like petroleum, then run it through a bunch of chemical reactions which use up bits of the energy contained therein to make your synthetic fiber. This works because the energy gradient makes the raw chemicals want to combine the way you want them to, and all you have to do is mix them in the right amounts at the right time (and sometimes right temperature and pressure).

    Naturals like silk and cotton go up the energy gradient. Start with raw materials, add energy, and build the fibers out of sugars (cellulose - cotton) or proteins (silk). If you mix a bunch of the raw ingredients in a beaker, they won't combine they way you want them to because it's going up the energy gradient. You need little machines which take energy and combine the materials in the shape you want. Our nano-technology isn't good enough yet to compete with nature''s nano-technology, so it's easier to have plants and animals do the nano-assembly and just harvest the final product.

    Unless the fibers from hagfish slime buck the trend and go down the energy gradient, they're unlikely to replace synthetics. All you'll end up doing is raising hagfish on a farm to harvest their slime, which you refine into these fibers. Production capacity will be limited by the number of hagfish you can raise, as opposed to synthetics whose production is limited by the raw materials you can acquire. In other words, don't expect this to replace plastics unless hagfish turn out to be extraordinarily easy to farm in huge numbers.
  • by gstoddart ( 321705 ) on Thursday December 06, 2012 @03:13PM (#42206655) Homepage

    The article makes the astounding claim that this animal "hasn't evolved for 300 million years". Sounds like hogwash to me, but is there any indication that this is true?

    Sure, fossil records. Let's go with NOAA [] since they're fairly well respected:

    Hagfish is considered to be the most primitive vertebrate species either living or extinct (Collette and Klein-MacPhee 2002, Powell et al 2005). Hagfish evolved over at least 300 million years and have the same basic morphological traits of fossilized specimens (Bardack 1991).

    And, then there's Berkeley []:

    The only fossil hagfish is Myxinikela siroka, a Pennsylvanian find from the Francis Creek Shale of northeastern Illinois (Bardack, 1991). The fossil was found within a siderite (iron carbonate) concretion, and preserves the paired tentacles, internal organs, and detail of the head and jaws. The similarity to modern hagfishes is striking, and suggests that there has been little evolutionary change in this group over the last 300 million years.

    So, yes, is there is strong evidence that the morphology of hagfish hasn't changed in 300 million years. That's not to say there has been zero changes to it, but nothing radical.

    If you can compare a modern specimen to a 300 million year old fossil and fine no differences, you pretty much conclude that it hasn't significantly evolved. Think coelacanth. Think crocodilians. Think MPAA. ;-)

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