Hagfish are a type of marine fish. There are 76 species of hagfish which live in cold waters all around the world. Hagfish look a lot like eels, but there are a few ways to tell them apart. To start, in contrast to other fish, hagfish lack backbones as well as jaws. They also have another special ability, they make an incredible mucus material that could have interesting uses in the practical world.
A Slimy Defense
What makes this fish especially remarkable is their defence mechanism. Hagfish have a unique way of protecting themselves from predators. When disturbed, hagfish secret mucins and protein threads from specialized glands which then rapidly react with the surrounding seawater to expand into a thick mucus. One hagfish can fill a 1 gallon bucket in seconds! The protein threads that make up this slime are incredibly strong, thin, and flexible. Each one is 100 times thinner than human hair and 10 times stronger than nylon! It is also one of the softest materials ever measured. “Jell-O is between 10,000 and 100,000 times stiffer than hagfish slime,” says Randy Ewoldt from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Predators inhale the slime and suffocate from it. The slime fills the mouth and gills of their attackers and the hagfish can escape. If the hagfish gets caught up in its own slime, it performs an amazing escape trick. It strips the slime off its body by tying itself in a knot, a feat which can be be accomplished because of the fish’s lack of a backbone. It then works the knot down the length of its body, pushing the slime off.
Uses for Hagfish Slime
Because of its strength, flexibility, and rapid expansion, hagfish slime could be extremely useful in many products. Researchers are experimenting to find a way to produce this slime themselves. The proteins threads could replace nylon as a more durable and environmentally friendly alternative. These properties mean that hagfish slime may have uses in a variety of industries, including clothing and automobiles. Scientists are thinking up all sorts of uses for hagfish slime including adding it to airbags or to create hydrogels to be used in disposable diapers and farm irrigation systems. Hagfish slime may also have a use in the biomedical field as tissue engineering and replacing damaged tendons.
Douglas Fudge, of Chapman University, has conducted research regarding the use of hagfish slime threads in clothing. Perhaps in the future, we will all be wearing clothes made from hagfish slime!