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Shining a Light on Slime

Physics researcher uses specialized spectroscopy to study gastropod mucus

What can gastropod mucus teach us about the physical properties of water? Surprisingly, quite a bit.

Dillon Hanlon is a third year PhD student in the Department of Physics and Physical Oceanography in the Faculty of Science. He’s been using a highly specialized form of spectroscopy to look at the slimy secretions.

“My supervisor, Dr. Todd Andrews, found an article in a journal about using the sticky substance as a medical adhesive to close wounds instead of staples or sutures,” said Mr. Hanlon. “I thought it was a pretty cool idea and wanted to know more about it.

“Originally, when we started this project for my M.Sc. thesis, we didn’t know the composition of snail mucus. We determined that it was mainly water with glycoproteins making up the remaining three to seven per cent.”

Further studies showed water containing glycoproteins had a much lower freezing point compared to that of water alone, which likely helps the gastropod survive in cold climates.

“In a snail or slug, proteins in the mucus inhibit ice from growing, similar to how proteins in the blood of a cod, which is also mostly water, can help them survive in the deep ocean,” said Mr. Hanlon. “These results were a big motivation for my Ph.D. research.”

Currently, Mr. Hanlon is trying to understand how the properties of water are influenced by protein concentration, mass, and type as a function of temperature. He is also studying more complex systems comprised of multiple proteins in water in collaboration with Dr. Valerie Booth in Memorial’s Department of Biochemistry.

“I’m using Brillouin spectroscopy, an inelastic light scattering technique,” he said. “Basically, we shoot a laser beam at the slime and it interacts with acoustic waves, similar to sound waves in air.”

Memorial has the only Brillouin spectroscopy equipment in Atlantic Canada, and is one of only a few labs in Canada to use this technique, as compared to the more common Raman spectroscopy.

“It has a lot of capabilities, and we hope our work will not only pave the way for more research in this area, but also shine a light on the underestimated ability this technique has in the field of biophysics,” said Mr. Hanlon.

Combining Brillouin spectroscopy with other complementary experimental techniques, as well as computer simulations, will also lead to a better understanding of water itself.

Currently, he is attempting to simulate water and protein systems that are similar to mucus with guidance and collaboration with Dr. Ivan Saika-Voivod, also from Memorial’s Department of Physics and Physical Oceanography and Dr. M. Shajahan Gulam Razul at St. Francis Xavier University.

“Water is a very interesting substance,” said Mr. Hanlon. “Even though it’s everywhere, including in our bodies, there are many things about it that are not well understood. We are learning more about it every day, but there is still a lot of work to be done.

“What we are doing will help researchers better understand how biological molecules interact with water and may eventually lead to technological advancements in medicine such as medical adhesives and cryoprotectants for vitrification – preservation of biological tissues from damage during rapid freezing.”

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