Spontaneous Unraveling of Hagfish Slime Thread Skeins is Mediated by a Seawater-soluble Protein Adhesive

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Hagfishes are known for their ability to rapidly produce vast quantities of slime when provoked. The slime is formed via the interaction between seawater and two components released by the slime glands: mucin vesicles from gland mucous cells, which swell and rupture in seawater to form a network of mucus strands, and intermediate filament-rich threads, which are produced within gland thread cells as tightly coiled bundles called skeins. A previous study showed that the unraveling of skeins from Atlantic hagfish (Myxine glutinosa) requires both the presence of mucins and hydrodynamic mixing. In contrast, skeins from Pacific hagfish (Eptatretus stoutii) unravel in the absence of both mucins and mixing. We tested the hypothesis that spontaneous unraveling of E. stoutii skeins is triggered by the dissolution of a seawater-soluble protein adhesive and the release of stored strain energy within the coiled thread. Here we show that, as predicted by this hypothesis, unraveling can be initiated by a protease under conditions in which unraveling does not normally occur. We also demonstrate, using high resolution scanning electron microscopy, that the treatment of skeins with solutions that cause unraveling also leads to the disappearance of surface and inter-thread features that remain when skeins are washed with stabilizing solutions. Our study provides a mechanism for the deployment of thread skeins in Pacific hagfish slime, and raises the possibility of producing novel biomimetic protein adhesives that are salt, temperature and kosmotrope sensitive.


This article was originally published in Journal of Experimental Biology, volume 217, in 2014. DOI: 10.1242/jeb.096909


The authors. Published by the Company of Biologists.