Slime Fibers

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Science  25 Apr 2014:
Vol. 344, Issue 6182, pp. 340-341
DOI: 10.1126/science.344.6182.340-d

When attacked, hagfish will release protein threads and mucin vesicles, which interact with seawater to form copious quantities of slime. Before release, the threads exist as coiled skeins that occupy almost the entire volume of specialized gland thread cells. The threads unravel in a fraction of a second from a 150-µm-long ellipsoid bundle to a thread that is 100 times longer, which clearly requires sophisticated ordering within the cell. As the threads also have comparable mechanical properties to those of spider silk, there is interest in understanding the organization and morphology of the coiled thread in both mature and immature gland thread cells, in order to design synthetic reactors. Using electron microscopy, Winegard et al. were able to identify changes in thread length, diameter, and morphology as the cells matured. Beyond this, they were able to see changes in the cell shape as it shifted from being rounded after differentiation to becoming spindle-shaped, with a more conical profile and flared base. This suggests that the cell nucleus acts as a template over which the staggered thread loops form. Using a focused ion beam within a scanning electron microscope, the three-dimensional structure of the loops was determined, including the ways that adjacent layers overlay and the cabled appearance of the skein where the threads run circumferentially along the outer surface.

Nat. Comm. 10.1038/ncomms4534 (2014).

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