Hagfish are super-slimy eel-like fish that live on the sea floor, where they feed on the carcasses of other sea creatures. Before you start disliking them too much, however, take note – synthetic fabrics of the future may be inspired by their slime.

While it’s normal for fish to have a protective slime coating, hagfish are particularly gifted in that department. They can produce quarts of unusually thick slime within seconds, to thwart attacks by other animals. That slime is made up of tens of thousands of tiny threads of protein, each of them one one-hundredth the diameter of a human hair.

A team led by Atsuko Negishi, a scientist from Canada’s University of Guelph, has succeeded in combining a number of these threads into fibers not unlike spider silk – a substance that is itself known for its remarkable strength, among other desirable properties. The fibers were created by laying a film of the protein threads over the surface of a salt solution, then grabbing that film with forceps and lifting it upwards. As the film rose, the threads collapsed together into a single strand.

Although you may not be seeing hagfish slime jackets in a store near you just yet, Negishi believes that the protein threads could serve as a model for synthetic fibers made from renewable, naturally-occurring proteins – this could result in fabrics that are less costly and more eco-friendly than current petroleum-based synthetic fabrics.

A paper on the research was recently published in the journal Biomacromolecules.