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Slime...It's Not Just For Defense Anymore
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Slime...It's Not Just For Defense Anymore

A Pacific Hagfish (Eptatretus stoutii). Do you think that is the anterior or the posterior of the animal? Photo by Celeste Ramsay

Slime As A Fashion Statement

Are you ready for a hagfish suit? What's a hagfish? A hagfish is a type of jawless fish which has fascinated and grossed-out people for centuries. They may be best known for their habit of wriggling into dead things and eating them from the inside out, but a close second is the copious amounts of slime they can produce. A 6-inch hagfish can fill a gallon bucket with slime in minutes. Take a look at this clip to find out more about this amazing slime. Notice the white spots hovering around the hagfish, they are part of a mucus/slime veil which surrounds the fish. Can you see how far from the animal the veil extends before the hagfish is handled? Does it appear to be uniform around the hagfish?

Notice how cohesive the slime was even when removed from the hagfish, and how it can be pulled and manipulated. These properties come from protein threads which are exuded with the slime and will be important for making a hagfish suit. But let's go back to the hagfish for a little bit before returning to the suit.

Jawless fish are the earliest fish found in the fossil record at a date of 530 MYA. These fossils are part of the Chengjiang fauna and were found in shale deposits in Yunnan Province, China. Their discovery opens up all kinds of questions about the tempo of evolution and the Cambrian explosion, but we don't need to worry about that right now. The oldest hagfish fossil is only 320 million years old. It was believed in the 1800s that the hagfish's simple body plan had to do with it adapting to a parasitic lifestyle and losing characteristics it shared with other fish. This is a very plausible theory, however it is also untrue. We now know that hagfish do actively hunt (you'll see this in the below clip) and are not parasitic or solely scavengers. So what does this mean? Well, the oldest jawless fish are 530 million years old, but they are not hagfish. Scientists are still working out how they are related to hagfish. Moreover, despite what some of you may have heard, hagfish are not living fossils, they are not our ancestors, and they are not primitive though they do utilize a very old body form.

So what about the slime? Why do hagfish make this? Watch this clip carefully, remember the first clip and what the slime looked like, remember also its cohesiveness. Also, make special note of the hunting behavior of the hagfish. Why do you think this behavior was unknown for so long?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bta18FdkVcA

Did you notice the slime "ball" left in the shark's mouth? This is particularly bad news for the shark as the cohesiveness of the slime means it can completely cover the sharks gills if ingested. Shark's take in water through their mouths and pass it over their gills in order to obtain the oxygen they need. This system doesn't work so well if a slime membrane covers the gills or fills the mouth. Imagine what it would be like trying to breath with your face covered with plastic wrap or even if you tried to breathe through your mouth with a plastic bag in it. So this slime has definite defensive properties, but what about the predation later in the clip? The hagfish appears to secure its prey, wrap around it, exude slime and then carry the prey away from the slime cloud. Is this really what it is doing? Maybe, but it appears that the slime could also have functions beyond defense. As a matter of fact, recent research indicates that hagfish can absorb nutrients through their skin in a manner reminiscent of flatworms and some aquatic annelids. This certainly casts a different light on their habit of wriggling into corpses and suggests that their trademark slime may have yet another function ( Hagfish Just Got More Disgusting).

So you see hagfish are pretty sophisticated animals we are still learning much about, but what about a hagfish suit or a dress? Researchers are now investigating hagfish slime as a source of natural fibers which could be used for manufacturing clothes. Currently, many of our clothes are made from synthetic fibers. Apart from clothes, synthetic fibers like Kevlar® are used in bullet-proof vests and as structural reinforcements. But currently, our most widely used synthetic fibers are petroleum based, which means the carbon that makes up the backbone of these fibers comes from fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are a limited resource, so any possibility to replace petroleum-based products with products from a renewable resource like hagfish slime can have long-term positive benefits for humankind. Watch this clip to see fibers being pulled from hagfish slime.

So what’s going on in this clip? Well, researchers isolated the protein component of the slime (the component which gives it its elasticity), and that’s what they add to the container with the pipette. The proteins then spread out across the surface of the liquid. When the researchers then grab a piece of the protein film and pull it, the pulling action serves to align and arrange the protein molecules to form a fiber. This fiber is then further manipulated to alter the molecular arrangement of the proteins in the fibers and improve physical properties like strength. So are these textile-quality fibers? Can you buy a hagfish fiber suit? Not yet, but initial results are promising, and you may be able to in the near future. What we do know is that this marvelous substance which has helped hagfish survive as a species has applications far beyond the world of hagfish and provides another example of the unexpected things we can learn from studying the organisms with which we share this planet.

Extension Investigation

Use the below resources to answer the following questions

  1. Why is hagfish slime a more attractive natural source of fibers than spider silk?
  2. Hagfish hatch as small versions of the adult. How does this differ from development in other fish? Does this seem like an ancestral trait to you? Does this support the view that despite outward appearance hagfish are not primitive creatures? Why or why not?
  3. What is unique about the hagfish's gonads? Does this situation surprise you? Why or why not? Do you think they may provide some clues about how separate sexes evolved?

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