Even though the researchers have been studying the biochemical components of hagfish slime closely for years, they had little understanding of its rapid deployment.
The paper published in the Journal of Royal Society Interface takes a deeper look into hagfish's secret weapon that can clog the gills of underwater predators. The scientists revealed that the drag produced by turbulence in the water plays an essential role in expanding the size of the sticky slime.
The Math Behind Hagfish Slime
Hagfish is a unique creature that can produce slime many times its own body size when attacked by a predator. The goo it ejects is so dense and fibrous that it can clog the gills of a shark.
The gel, also known as skeins, is a complex web of microscopic threads that is spewed from the glands in hagfish's skin. Scientists tested these skeins and their unraveling in salt water to see how long it took them to untangle. The study researchers discovered that while theirs took hours of soaking for the threads to come apart, hagfish do it in less than a second.
Jean-Luc Thiffeault, a math professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and collaborators Randy Ewoldt and Gaurav Chaudhary of the University of Illinois have used mathematics to understand hagfish's defense mechanism and the pace of this unraveling process.
"It's just hard to imagine there's another process other than the hydrodynamic flow that can lead to these timescales, that burst of slime," Thiffeault said.
He further explains that when the shark bites down, it creates turbulence and faster flow that acts as a catalyst for it to happen this way.
The Potential Uses Of Hagfish Mucus
The researchers are interested in not just this extremely strong and stretchy mucus ejected from hagfish, but also its hydrodynamics. The paper explains that it can have some extensive medical and industrial applications if they can develop its synthetic version, reported ArsTechnica.
"There is considerable interest in replicating the material properties of hagfish slime for diverse practical applications, and the insights provided in this paper get us closer to making that goal a reality," said Fudge.
This slime may also one day become useful in the development of biomedical devices or light and durable fabrics, bulletproof vests, or lubrication of industrial drills that often get clogged in sediment and deep soil.