Scientists are studying the viscous, elastic slime of the Atlantic hagfish to create novel ''super hydrogels'', for use in numerous applications - from disposable nappies to adhesive plasters and contact lenses. Matthew Stock reports.
The hagfish isn't the nicest looking creature in the sea. But to a group of scientists in Switzerland, these jawless invertebrates are beautiful. That's because hagfish have a remarkable defence mechanism. When attacked by a predator they release a glandular secretion that instantly reacts with the surrounding seawater to form a mass of slime. Any would-be predator is quickly disabled by the goo clogging their mouth and gills. No wonder the humble hagfish has survived for hundreds of millions of years. But this slime has special properties that could benefit mankind, according to scientists from ETH Zurich. It's made up of 99.99 percent water - which could make it an extremely effective hydrogel. (SOUNDBITE) (English) LUKAS BÖNI, PHD STUDENT INSTITUTE OF HEALTH SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY AT ETH ZURICH, SAYING: "Hydrogels are present in many everyday products; from diapers to face creams to food materials. And by studying the slime, we're trying to find out how we can make super hydrogels, so hydrogels that can entrap large amounts of water." The researchers collected their samples off the coast of Norway. The fish are caught and sedated, but released back into the wild unharmed. (SOUNDBITE) (English) LUKAS BÖNI, PHD STUDENT INSTITUTE OF HEALTH SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY AT ETH ZURICH, SAYING: "We mildly stimulate the ventral side of the fish. This causes the muscles to contract and the exudate, this glandular secrete, to be expelled." And this is what they're after. In this small milky liquid are tightly coiled strands of protein that unwind to form a matrix of slime when released in water. (SOUNDBITE) (English) PATRICK RÜHS, POSTDOCTORAL RESEARCHER AT ETH ZURICH, SAYING: "One protein thread is coiled up into one skein, and if you extend this thread it is up to 30 centimetres long. And when these skeins come into contact with water they unravel and form these long protein threads." The team is working to unlock the secret of the slime formation and its ability to absorb water; and hope to recreate it artificially in the lab. The first hurdle is stabilizing the secretion which has a limited life span outside the fish's body, meaning supplies have to be constantly replenished. But the survival instinct of the hagfish has ensured there's plenty more of this fish in the sea.