Whether it’s autonomous ships with no crew or ultra-strong underwater glue inspired by mussels, the U.S. Navy has some pretty intriguing research projects. Their latest? Weaponized slime, capable of being fired at enemy vessels to stop them in their tracks.
The synthetic slime is being created by a team of researchers at Utah State University, who have been awarded a 15-month Navy contract to carry out the work. It is based on the slime of a real, eel-like creature called a hagfish, which defends itself against would-be attackers by using a jet of slime to fill predators’ mouths and gills with goo. This slime swells up by a factor of several thousand when it comes into contact with sea water.
“We are attempting to create hagfish thread keratins synthetically,” Justin Jones, an assistant professor in the Department of Biology at Utah State University, told Digital Trends. “Hagfish thread keratins, in their native form, rival spider silk in their mechanical properties. The problem is that farming hagfish for these threads is likely impossible. That necessitates producing the individual proteins that comprise the thread keratin using another host system. We have chosen to produce the proteins in E. coli due to our group’s experience, the economics of scaling the process, as well as the robust amount of protein produced in this system.”
Once the slime proteins have been manufactured using modified E. coli bacteria, they will then have to be formed into fibers. For this, the team will rely on their previous experience “wet spinning” spider silk proteins to develop a method for re-creating the hagfish thread keratin fibers. The goal is to create a synthetic fiber comparable to its native counterpart.
At present, the U.S. Navy stops boats — such as those it suspects contain smugglers — by firing a plastic rope with a pneumatic launcher, designed to tangle in the boat’s propeller. The hope is that this new method could prove to be safer, more effective, and less likely to injure the occupants of the other vessel.
Before you start getting concerned about the possible polluting effects of firing massive amount of slime into the water like an oil spill — yes, they’ve thought of that, too.
“Hagfish thread keratins are comprised of protein and protein alone,” Jones continued. “Therefore they do not contribute to plastic waste problems in the world’s waterways. With mechanical properties that outperform some petroleum-based polymers, they are an ideal biomaterial to use to deploy in order to stop maritime vessels without causing further pollution.”