The gel is a tangled network of microscopic, seawater-trapping threads unspooled from balls of the stuff ejected from glands along the hagfish's skin.
These "skeins" are just millionths of a meter in diameter twice the width of a human hair , but so densely coiled that they can contain as much as 15 centimeters of thread. Curious scientists have looked at the unraveling before, putting the skeins in salt water to see how long it took them to come apart. The stirring was the thing. The slime modelers set out to see if math could tell them whether the forces of the turbulent water of a bite-and-shake attack were enough to unspool the skeins and make the slime, or if another mechanism—like a chemical reaction providing some pop to the skein—was required.
Ewoldt, a mechanical engineering professor, and his graduate student Chaudhary began unraveling skeins under microscopes, watching the process as loose ends of thread stuck to the tip of a moving syringe and trailing lengths spun out from the ball. To start pulling tape from a new roll, you may have to hunt for the end and pick it loose with your fingernail.
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But if there's already a free end, it's easy to catch it with something and get going. Unrolling requires a big enough difference between the drag on the free end and an opposing push on the skein—a ratio larger than a tipping point the researchers refer to informally as the "peeling number"—to free more thread.
Things get to be messy," says Thiffeault. As long as it's happening to enough skeins, it's pretty fast that you're in the slime. The skeins may get a boost from mucins, proteins found in mucus that could speed the breakup of packed thread , "but those kinds of things would just help the hydrodynamics," says Thiffeault, who once calculated the extent to which swimming marine life mix entire oceans with their fins and flippers. That creates faster flows, the sorts of things that provide the seed for these things to happen.
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Nothing is going to happen as nicely as in our model—which is more of a good start for anyone who wants to take more measurements—but our model shows the physical forces play the biggest role. The hydrodynamics of hagfish slime is not just a curiosity. Understanding the formation and behavior of gels is a standing issue in many biological processes and similar industrial and medical applications.
One of the things we'd love to work on in the future is the network of threads.
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