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The defensive slime of hagfishes contains thousands of intermediate filament protein threads that are manufactured within specialized gland thread cells. The material properties of these threads rival those of spider dragline silks, which makes them an ideal model for biomimetic efforts to produce sustainable protein materials, yet how the thread is produced and organized within the cell is not well understood. Here we show how changes in nuclear morphology, size and position can explain the three-dimensional pattern of thread coiling in gland thread cells, and how the ultrastructure of the thread changes as very young thread cells develop into large cells with fully mature coiled threads. Our model provides an explanation for the complex process of thread assembly and organization that has fascinated and perplexed biologists for over a century, and provides valuable insights for the quest to manufacture high-performance biomimetic protein materials.


This is a pre-copy-editing, author-produced PDF of an article accepted for publication in Nature Communications, volume 5, in 2014 following peer review. The definitive publisher-authenticated version is available online at DOI: 10.1038/ncomms4534


Macmillan Publishers Limited

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Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.



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