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Fashionable Slime

Posted by Richard Conniff on November 29, 2012

Sooner or later we all have to eat our words, and today it’s my slimy turn.  Here’s part of what I wrote about slime eels, also known as hagfish, in my 1996 book Spineless Wonders:  Strange Tales of the Invertebrate World:

Among other habits that have endeared them to seafarers, slime eels like to enter dead or dying bodies on the ocean bot­tom by way of mouth, gills, or anus, and gobble up everything except bones and skin, which remain intact. Fish immobilized in gill nets are particularly susceptible. In one study in the Gulf of Maine, slime eels gutted 3 percent to 5 percent of the catch. J. B. Heiser, a biologist at Cornell University’s Shoals Marine Laboratory in Maine, describes what’s left of the fish as “a bag of bones, literally . .. like it had been sucked dry by a high- powered vacuum cleaner.”

Slime eels are often still inside the fish when the bloated gill net spills its contents onto the fisherman’s deck, and Heiser, who has opened up several specimens, says the hags ensconced in their victim are typically well-fed and at ease, “smiling, slimy, usually snoring—gently.” In one case, the record, a single cod contained 123 slime eels, in a pink, wriggling mass.

It is a disheartening sight for fishermen, touching some source of horror beyond mere economic loss. One fisheries ex­pert has attributed this horror to the slime itself: “Being worth­less . . . the hag is an unmitigated nuisance, and a particularly loathsome one owing to its habit of pouring out slime from its mucous sacs in quantity out of all proportion to its small size. One hag, it is said, can easily fill a two-gallon bucket, nor do we think this any exaggeration.”

But, oh, how wrong, how terribly narrow-minded, of both me and my nameless expert, because hagfish slime is apparently destined to become the stuff of high fashion.  ScienceDaily reports:

Nylon, Kevlar and other synthetic fabrics: Step aside. If new scientific research pans out, people may be sporting shirts, blouses and other garments made from fibers modeled after those in the icky, super-strong slime from a creature called the hagfish. The study appears in ACS’ journal Biomacromolecules.

Lead author Atsuko Negishi, her supervisor Douglas S. Fudge and colleagues explain that petroleum is the raw material for making modern synthetics. Rising prices and the quest for more sustainable alternatives have led scientists to consider the possibilities of using protein-based raw materials, such as spider silk. Another candidate comes from the hagfish, an eel-like fish that produces a thick slime to protect itself against predators. A single Atlantic Hagfish can produce quarts of slime in seconds. It clogs the gills and may suffocate other fish. The slime consists of tens of thousands of remarkably strong threads, each 100 times thinner than a human hair. The scientists set out to investigate spinning spider-silk-like fibers from the proteins of these slime threads.

They developed a method for drawing hagfish slime thread proteins into fibers comparable to lab-made spider silk. It involved casting a thin self-supporting film of thread proteins on the surface of a salt solution, then grabbing it with forceps and lifting it upwards so it collapses into a single strand. The threads in hagfish slime, they indicate, might be models for synthetic fibers made from renewable, naturally occurring proteins.

The authors acknowledge funding from the Advanced Foods and Materials Network and the Ontario Ministry of Economic Development and Innovation.

It may all seem improbable, or we might at least wish that it were.  But the slime weel has had one previous moment in the fashion limelight:  In the 1980s, Wall Street types and others liked to sport wallets made from the slime eel’s curiously wrinkled skin.

SOURCE:  Atsuko Negishi, Clare L. Armstrong, Laurent Kreplak, Maikel C. Rheinstadter, Loong-Tak Lim, Todd E. Gillis, Douglas S. Fudge. The Production of Fibers and Films from Solubilized Hagfish Slime Thread Proteins. Biomacromolecules, 2012; 13 (11): 3475 DOI: 10.1021/bm3011837

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