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The secrets of snail mucus, according to a biochemist

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

OK, get this. The human body produces at least one liter of mucus every day. I know - gross, right? But keep in mind, this sticky, slippery muck is crucial. It's a protective barrier against germs. It also helps your eyelids glide smoothly. And it moisturizes your gut. In fact, the moisturizing properties of mucus may sound familiar to those of you who've ever smeared a face mask with snail mucus on your face. That's right, this stuff can make you pretty. Seriously, snail slime is huge in cosmetics. And maybe I will finally take that plunge after this interview because scientists, like Antonio Cerullo at the City University of New York, have been studying the secrets of snails. He's the lead author of a new scientific paper on the topic out recently in the journal Nature Communications. Welcome.

ANTONIO CERULLO: Hi. It's great to be here. Thank you so much for having me on.

CHANG: Oh, it's so great to have you. So I understand that CUNY has the largest library of secreted animal mucus. I didn't even know you call these things libraries (laughter). What kind of animals are we talking about here?

CERULLO: Sure. Our curated mucus library contains samples from corals, frogs, jellyfish, velvet worms, marine worms, oysters, hippos, birds and hagfish, just to name a few.

CHANG: But I want to focus on the snail part of that range because I understand that for your study, you used snails that are the same snails used for escargot, which I would totally put in my mouth. But tell me why I need to smear these guys all over my face, too?

CERULLO: The slime has so many advantageous properties. It's a powerful moisturizer and hydrating agent. It has antimicrobial capabilities. It's a powerful wound-healing agent. It has so many great properties for your skin, which is why snail mucus is a multi-billion-dollar market across the globe.

CHANG: Billion? I had no idea. So I imagine that you have to harvest this mucus somehow - right? - to do your research. How do you harvest snail mucus?

CERULLO: We actually formed a partnership with an escargot farm out in Long Island. And we called them up and asked, hey, you have many, many snails, would you mind if we just played with them for a little bit and collected their slime?

CHANG: Yeah, so how do you collect?

CERULLO: The way that we harvest the three different snail mucus is - for the protective one across the back, we just simply scoop it off with a spatula and throw it in the tube. For the two on the foot, for the lubricant, we just let them crawl all over a large surface to just deposit that snail trail everywhere they can. Whereas with the adhesive mucus from the same part of the snail, we actually stick them to our dishes upside down to entice them to adhere to that surface and deposit their glue.

CHANG: Oh, my God. That's so cool. So I understand that you subjected this mucus to all sorts of scientific analyses. I saw that you even made a huge map of snail mucus proteins. Can you just briefly explain what you found in this so-called mucus map?

CERULLO: So what we found is what proteins make up this gel, this biological material, what sugars are attached to these proteins, and what kinds of salts connect the biomolecular network together. Once we know what they're made of, we can understand how to better use the mucus and how to create new materials inspired by them. That's why it's so important that we study it, because mucus, I firmly believe, is a beautiful material that is a choreographed chaos of so many complex components, so many different molecules coming together to do wondrous things.

CHANG: You make mucus sound like poetry. That is slime scientists Antonio Cerullo at the City University of New York. Thank you so much.

CERULLO: Thank you so much for your time. It was lovely being here.

(SOUNDBITE OF KACEY MUSGRAVES' "BUTTERFLIES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Gurjit Kaur
Gurjit Kaur is a producer for NPR's All Things Considered. A pop culture nerd, her work primarily focuses on television, film and music.
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
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