Supramolecular structures: slugs and spiders, mucus and slime

A research team at Heriot-Watt University is taking an extra close look at slug mucus and spider silk in an attempt to see what can be learned from the microscopic structure of these natural materials. The aim is to learn the best way to produce multifunctional optimized materials and devices that can be used to improve everything from engine lubrication to the diagnosis and treatment of cystic fibrosis.

Slug mucus is primarily made of mucin, a glycoprotein, which can precipitate from slug mucus in two crystall forms. One will only form under a resting slug, the other under both resting and moving slugs. The crystalline rods that form under a resting slug effectively convert the mucus from a lubricant into a glue.

By identifying the relationships between molecular architecture, supramolecular organization and the useful functions of mucus, the research team may also be able to aid the development of microscopy based protocol for diagnosing defective mucus in disorders as varied as cystic fibrosis, asthma and infertility.

Similarly, the team hope that information about chemical and molecular methods of information storage and retrieval may lie at the end of the slug trail.