Future Fibers May Be Spun From Slime

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The hagfish or "slime eel" shoots out slime containing silk-like fibers of remarkable strength. Douglas Fudge, a biologist at the University of Guelph, says it could be a good substitute for today's synthetic fibers—it's 10 times stronger than nylon, for example—and bacteria can be trained to make it.


And now, it's time for one last thing, our science surprise.

CHRISTOPHER INTAGLIATA, BYLINE: All you fashionistas, listen up: snake skin is so last year. Scientists say the fabric of future is lightweight, almost 10 times stronger than nylon and comes from the sea, from hagfish, long, worm-like creatures that produce buckets of slime.

DOUGLAS FUDGE: They have these very specialized slime glands down both sides of their body. These slime glands actually shoot condensed mucus out into the seawater. There are tens of thousands of silk-like fibers running throughout the slime.

INTAGLIATA: That's Douglas Fudge, a biologist at the University of Guelph in Ontario. He has been experimenting with ways to spend protein fibers - silk, essentially - from the hagfish slime.

FUDGE: The individual fibers are really tiny. They're only about a micron in diameter, about 160th the diameter of the human hair. You could hang a weight that is almost a gram off of one of those fibers.

INTAGLIATA: That's like hanging a paperclip off this microscopic thread. And this strong, stringy slime actually serves as a defensive coat for the hagfish.

FUDGE: We think that the slime is very well designed to stick on the gills of gill-breathing predators, like sharks and that could actually suffocate them.

INTAGLIATA: And best of all, you don't even need hagfish for hagfish slime.

FUDGE: I don't really want to be in the business of hagfish farming or hagfish ranching.

INTAGLIATA: Just as bacteria have been engineered to manufacture proteins like insulin, they could also be tweaked to pump out hagfish slime. But who's going to buy a hagfish sweater? It's all in the marketing. A hundred percent sea silk sounds pretty soft, doesn't it? For SCIENCE FRIDAY, I'm Christopher Intagliata.

FLATOW: That's about all the time we have for this hour.

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