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News Release

December 05, 2005

'Slime' Research Aims to Advance Knowledge, Lead to New Biomaterials

The revolting ooze produced by a primitive ocean creature may seem like an odd research subject to some. But a University of Guelph scientist’s groundbreaking work on hagfish slime may lead to better understanding of the human cellular architecture and help create new biomaterials, including stronger-than-steel silk.

Most recently, Douglas Fudge, a professor in the Department of Integrative Biology, conducted a first-ever study on the mechanical properties of hagfish slime. That research was published today in the Journal of Experimental Biology.

“Initially, I was interested in how it works,” Fudge says, referring to the oozing mess that hagfish are notorious for producing when they are provoked or stressed. The slime contains not only slippery mucins but also fine fibres or “slime threads,” which are believed to add strength and cohesion to the ooze.

His new research has determined that hagfish slime is apparently designed to trap large volumes of seawater and may function as a defence against gill-breathing predators.

Fudge is the first scientist to characterize the slime’s mechanical properties and apply this knowledge to the function of the cytoskeleton. His research is important because it may serve as a model for studying structures in the cellular scaffolding of all animals known as “intermediate filaments.” It also has possible applications in everything from human health to structural mechanics.

Scientists already knew that intermediate filaments exist in nearly all animal cells. They’re part of a system of rods and strands of varied shapes and sizes that impart mechanical integrity to cells. But biologists had assumed that these intermediate filaments were stiff and inflexible. That assumption was challenged by Fudge’s work, which has shown that intermediate filaments are like rubber bands, allowing cells to deform but then to revert to their initial state.

“Muscle cells have a rubbery protein called ‘titin’ that helps them return to their resting length after a stretch, but it’s always been assumed that this is a special case, that the vast majority of cells do not possess rubber-like filaments in their cytoplasm,” Fudge said. “If our model of intermediate filament mechanics is true, this will turn this convention on its head and force us to rethink how animal cells are mechanically put together.”

Not only are these filaments flexible, but it also turns out that stretching filaments from hagfish slime transforms them into a spider silk-like material that’s light but incredibly strong. Fudge hopes this finding will lead to a new, inexpensive source of silk that is “stronger than steel” and has structural uses. Already, he and his collaborators from the University of British Columbia have been awarded a patent for making silk-like fibres using intermediate filaments like the ones in hagfish slime.

Hagfish, which live on the ocean floor, including both east and west coasts of Canada, are not actually fishes. Lacking jaws and fins, they are classed along with lampreys. They secrete slime through special glands running the length of their body, ridding themselves of the material through a Houdini-like trick of knotting themselves and passing the knot down their body.

Contact :
Prof. Douglas Fudge
Department of Integrative Biology
(519) 824-4120, Ext. 56418

For media questions, contact Communications and Public Affairs: Lori Bona Hunt (519) 824-4120, Ext. 53338, or Rebecca Kendall, (519) 824-4120, Ext. 56982.

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