The Slimy Hagfish Yields A Treasure

Biopolymers--those natural, biodegradable plastics--are in such hot demand as substitutes for oil-based varieties that scientists are searching far and wide to find new sources. Now, they may have discovered an unlikely supply of these valuable materials: the hagfish. For centuries, saltwater fishermen have considered the eel-like vertebrate a nuisance because it can sully their catch with its slime, a protective mucus that it releases in vast quantities when upset.

Elizabeth Koch and Robert Spitzer, researchers at the University of Health Sciences/Chicago Medical School, have determined that hagfish slime contains a number of biopolymers. They are studying the way in which the hagfish forms and secretes its mucus in hopes of harnessing these materials for a variety of medical and industrial applications. Components of the slime potentially could be used in the production of emulsifiers, moisturizers, thickeners, lubricants, and even fabrics. In addition, purified components of these biological materials might be mixed with drugs to modulate their release into the circulatory system.