Researcher Atsuko Negishi making experiments with hagfish slime. (Photo Credit: University of Guelph/NOAA)
Could the future bring clothes made from hagfish slime?
Friday, April 05, 2013, 03:40 (GMT + 9)
A team of Canadian scientists is studying a natural material -- slime from hagfish -- and its potential to be used to make clothing.
Biologist Tim Winegard of the University of Guelph is raising hagfish, which when gently squeezed, release “a pretty impressive volume of slime,” he said, as a defense mechanism. This slime is made up of thread-like fibers.
“When you stretch the fibers in water and then dry them out they take on properties that are very silk-like,” explained Douglas Fudge, who heads this research project at the University of Guelph.
Because hagfish fibers are remarkable both thin and strong, Fudge and his colleagues got an idea to use the slime to make clothing, BBC reports.
This possibility would be one answer to a problem that scientists have been exploring for years: finding natural alternatives to synthetic fiber like nylon and spandex, as these are made from oil, a nonrenewable and finite resource, PRI The World reports.
Instead, hagfish threads are made from proteins -- making them renewable and relatively infinite.
“Proteins are a renewable resource because we can get organisms to make them,” said Fudge.
The Canadian team believes that, even though no one has yet made a spool of hagfish thread, hagfish slime or similar proteins could be turned into high-performance, eco-friendly clothing at some point in the future. The fibers could be used to create stockings, breathable athletic wear or perhaps even bullet-proof vests.
As hagfish are not easily raised in captivity, the scientists would not plan to harvest slime from hagfish directly.
"We know very little about hagfish reproduction, and no-one has ever gotten hagfish to breed in captivity - amazing as that sounds," said Fudge.
Rather, the idea is to produce these fibers in the lab.
In fact, that is what post-doc Atsuko Negishi has been working on. She has been experimenting filling glass dishes with liquid and a thin film of hagfish proteins that floats on top.
“And I’m just taking my tweezers, and then kind of drawing it up,” she said.
Pulling on the proteins a pair of tweezers, this skin collapses and forms a short fiber that Negishi is able to twirl between her fingers.
“It’s kind of like a little piece of hair,” she said.
Other scientists in the team are working on making these kinds of threads using genetically engineered bacteria instead of hagfish. While they are not anywhere close to making fabric from these threads, Winegard is hopeful.
“With increased interest and increased support and collaboration,” he added, “it could be something not too far into the future.”
By Natalia Real