SALT LAKE CITY — It's possible that the newest and most eco-friendly clothes and fibers could be produced by one of the oldest and least-understood species living in the oceans.
The hagfish, a slimy, eel-like sea creature is so primitive it may not even qualify strictly as a vertebrate. But it does have one interesting defense mechanism that has aided in it's survival since before even the dinosaurs existed.
When attacked, hagfish exude many tiny, condensed protein fibers. When these mix with water, they expand tremendously into a sticky, goopy clear-ish slime that can suffocate its predators.
It's those fibers that have caught the interest of researchers at the University of Guelph in Canada. They are long, super strong, and stretchy — features that many manufacturers would want in a material.
"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," said a UofG news release on the research of Atsuko Negishi.
Recently, Negishi and her associates were able to isolate, purify and then wind those fibers into threads and show that it could be woven into material, like breathable, flexible materials or even bullet-proof vests. But more work needs to be done.
"We're not quite there," Negishi told The Chronicle Herald. "That's our motivation — that it would be nice to be able to make protein-based textiles or fabric or material."
The tens-of thousands of tiny fibers — found in hundreds of glands all over the hagfish body ᰬ are in the same category as spider silk, and show many of the same incredible properties. The only problem is that, like spiders, hagfish can't yet be farmed for the material.
In fact, no one even knows how hagfish reproduce. None have been successfully bred in captivity.
In fact, much about the fish is a mystery. There is no way of telling how old a hagfish is or how long they live. No one knows whether they are predecessors to modern fish, or whether they came later and then lost their backbone and jaws.