US Navy scientists create synthetic hagfish slime to assist military personnel

25 January 2017 (Last Updated January 25th, 2017 18:30)

Scientists and engineers from the US Naval Surface Warfare Center, Panama City Division (NSWC PCD) have successfully recreated a defensive biomaterial found in hagfish to aid military personnel.

US Navy scientists create synthetic hagfish slime to assist military personnel

Scientists and engineers from the US Naval Surface Warfare Center, Panama City Division (NSWC PCD) have successfully recreated a defensive biomaterial found in hagfish to aid military personnel.

A synthetic component of hagfish slime, derived from the compound's alpha and gamma proteins, has been developed by biochemist Dr Josh Kogot and materials engineer Dr Ryan Kincer.

Pacific hagfish, also known as slime eels, are scavengers that live on the ocean floor and secrete the highly viscous substance in order to protect themselves by obstructing the gills of predators.

The slime comprises two protein-based components, a thread and a mucin.

Kincer said: “The coiled up thread behaves like a spring and quickly unravels upon contact with water due to stored energy.

“The mucin binds to water and constrains the flow between the micro-channels created by the thread dispersion. Interaction between the thread, mucin, and seawater creates a three-dimensional, viscoelastic network.

“Over time, the thread begins to collapse on itself, causing the slime to slowly dissipate. Studies have shown the hagfish secretion can expand up to 10,000 times its initial volume.”

Hagfish mucus is considered to be similar to spider silk, as both are natural, renewable materials that have the capability to replace synthetic products obtained from petroleum-based precursors.

Kogot further noted the slime thread also possesses mechanical properties comparable to Kevlar, the synthetic fibre used as a reinforcing agent for rubber products and protective gear.

It is hoped the synthetic slime can be used to provide non-lethal and non-kinetic defence for naval vessels.

Kogot said: “The synthetic hagfish slime may be used for ballistics protection, firefighting, anti-fouling, diver protection, or anti-shark spray.

“The possibilities are endless; our goal is to produce a substance that can act as a non-lethal and non-kinetic defence to protect the warfighter.”

While carrying out the synthetic recreation, the alpha and gamma proteins were produced in Escherichia coli (E.coli) bacteria, where each protein could then be recovered after various isolation and purification processes.

Later, the proteins were combined together and quickly assembled in a crosslinking solution.

"The synthetic hagfish slime may be used for ballistics protection, firefighting, anti-fouling, diver protection, or anti-shark spray. The possibilities are endless."

Researchers are now evaluating ways to enhance the slime's surface attachment capability, potential delivery systems, and stability in different environments.

Kincer added: "For the US Navy to have its hands on it, or a material that acts similar, would be beneficial.

"From a tactical standpoint, it would be interesting to have a material that can change the properties of the water at dilute concentrations in a matter of seconds."


Image: Naval Surface Warfare Panama City Division (NSWC PCD) scientist and engineers (L-R) Dr Josh Kogot, Dr Michelle Kincer and Dr Ryan Kincer demonstrate the lab-created hagfish slim. Photo: courtesy of US Navy by Ron Newsome (Released).