University of Guelph researcher Atsuko Negishi is investigating a novel and unlikely source of natural fibres that may one day lessen our dependence on petroleum: hagfish slime.
The textile industry needs an affordable, sustainable alternative to oil-based polymers, and a recent study shows that hagfish slime protein threads have the potential to be spun and woven into novel biomaterials.
Hagfishes are an ancient group of eel-like, bottom-dwelling animals that have remained relatively unchanged for more than 300 million years. When threatened, hagfishes secrete a gelatinous slime containing mucous and tens of thousands of protein threads. These threads belong to the “intermediate filament” family of proteins, and they have remarkable mechanical properties that rival those of spider silks.
“The way spiders produce their silks is complex, and spiders cannot be farmed to yield high quantities of silk,” said Negishi, a research assistant in the Department of Integrative Biology. “My research explores the potential of making high strength protein-based fibres using hagfish slime thread proteins rather than spider silk proteins.”
Negishi is the lead author on a new paper about producing both fibres and films from the protein component of hagfish slime. Her co-authors are integrative biology professors Douglas Fudge and Todd Gillis, food science professor Loong-Tak Lim, and scientists from McMaster and Dalhousie universities.
“Our previous research showed that the protein threads in hagfish slime have remarkable mechanical properties,” Fudge said. “In this paper, Atsuko has shown that it’s possible to make macroscopic materials using proteins isolated from hagfish slime threads. This work is just the beginning of our efforts to apply what we have learned from animals like hagfishes to the challenge of making high-performance materials from sustainable protein feedstocks.”
The researchers isolated protein threads from hagfish slime and purified them before spinning them into fibres.
Protein concentrations lower than five per cent yielded films that were too fragile to make fibres. Fibres with higher protein concentration showed useful material properties. These fibres could be a first step toward using hagfish slime threads to make high-performance textiles from intermediate filament proteins.
The researchers plan to study spinning of fibres from slime thread proteins to scale up production. They also plan to look at other intermediate filament proteins for new ways to make sustainable materials for medicine and industry.
The study was supported by a grant from the Advanced Foods and Materials Network and an Ontario Early Researcher Award to Fudge.
The study is available online.
Department of Integrated Biology, University of Guelph
Phone: 519-824-4120, Ext. 53985
University of Guelph. press release, 2012-10-30.