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Physics researcher using specialized spectroscopy to study snail mucus


By Kelly Foss

What can gastropod mucus teach us about the physical properties of water?

Surprisingly, quite a bit.

A man in a sweater leans on a half wall next to scientific equipment. The image is bathed in a green light.
Dillon Hanlon found that glycoproteins in snail mucus can help gastropods survive in cold weather.
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

Dillon Hanlon is a third-year doctoral 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.

‘A cool idea’

Mr. Hanlon says he became interested in the subject when his 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.

“I thought it was a pretty cool idea and wanted to know more about it. Originally, when we started this project for my master’s 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.”

A bottle containing a clear fluid is lit from behind by a green light. Text on the bottle reads 'Pure snail mucus extracts.'
Mr. Hanlon hopes to determine how protein can impact the properties of water by shooting a laser beam at slug slime.
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

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. These results were a big motivation for my PhD research.”

Mr. Hanlon is now trying to understand how the properties of water are influenced by protein concentration, mass and type as a function of temperature.

“Even though it’s everywhere, including in our bodies, there are many things about [water] that are not well understood.” — Dillon Hanlon

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.”

A man in a sweater in a brightly lit hallway
Dillon Hanlon
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

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

More work to do

Currently, Mr. Hanlon 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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