What can gastropod mucus teach us about the physical properties of water? Quite a bit, according to Dillon Hanlon, a PhD student in the Department of Physics and Physical Oceanography, who has been using a highly specialized form of spectroscopy to study the composition of snail mucus, which despite being used in medical procedures, was until recently unknown. Hanlon spent his master’s studies determining that snail mucus 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.
The nature of the proteins inhibiting ice formation inspired further research into 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.
For this work, Hanlon is using Brillouin spectroscopy, an inelastic light scattering technique. The process involves shooting laser beam at the slime and observing how 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.
Hanlon hopes that this 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. Combining Brillouin spectroscopy with other complementary experimental techniques, as well as computer simulations, will also lead to a better understanding of water itself, perhaps eventually leading to technological advancements in medicine such as medical adhesives and cryoprotectants for vitrification – preservation of biological tissues from damage during rapid freezing.
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.
Adapted from the Gazette.
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