To most people, slugs are repulsive. No doubt that's why the remarkable properties of slug slime, or mucus, have gone unappreciated. Not by assistant professor of bioengineering Christopher Viney, a pioneer in unlocking the secrets of spider silk's amazing strength. His team at the University of Washington in Seattle is uncovering similar surprises in slime.
By coaxing slugs across microscope slides and inspecting their trails under polarized light, Viney has discovered that mucus has a liquid-crystalline structure. It's somewhat like that of spider silk, but with a unique property: When it reacts with water, the liquid crystals expand like an accordion, paving a wide, slick path for the slug. Viney believes the structure of the mucus can be harnessed for such applications as water-based lubricants and new drug-delivery systems that put medicinal coatings on specific sites in the body. In fact, a patent application covering drug delivery is now in the works.