Sticky, Slightly Icky, Science Stories

hagfishBiomimetics is the development of materials or machines inspired by the study of biological structures or processes. The book The Gecko’s Foot, published in 2006, gives many examples of such inventions inspired by natural phenomena—ranging from Velcro to cantilever bridges. In recent weeks there have been several news stories reporting new examples of materials design based on some unusual natural sources. Here are a few that caught my attention.

Hagfish Tights Anyone?
The poor old hagfish doesn’t seem to have a lot going for it. Millions of years old, it sits at the bottom of the ocean and the bottom of the evolutionary tree. A jawless, finless, spineless scavenger, not even considered fit to eat, according to Wikipedia, “owing to its repugnant looks, viscosity and unpleasant habits”. One of those unpleasant habits is exuding large amounts of slime, a defense mechanism that helps the hagfish evade predators. This slime is composed of protein filaments that have similar properties to spider silk—tensile strength and elasticity. Recent studies investigating the properties of hagfish slime have shown that it may be a viable natural alternative to synthetic fabrics. Unfortunately hagfish have not been bred in captivity so hagfish farming is not an option. However, the proteins in the hagfish slime are smaller than those in spider silk and so the hope is that they will be easier to clone and mass-produce. It’s early days yet, but the time may come when tights, vests, and other fabrics woven from hagfish “silk” become a reality. Continue reading “Sticky, Slightly Icky, Science Stories”