A few weeks ago, Zooillogix brought you a story about Japanese researchers using giant jellyfish as an ingredient in cosmetics. Jellyfish are predominantly composed of mucin (mucus is made of mucins), and one of our news sources quoted Dr. Tony Corfield, a Mucin Biologist from the University of Bristol. We decided to track down Dr. Corfield and see if he might illuminate the shadowy, sticky field of mucin biology for Zooillogix readers. We are very grateful For Dr. Corfield’s thoughtful responses to our sometimes less than respectful questions and his sense of humor.
What exactly is the field of mucin biology?
The label of mucin biologist is certainly a two edged sword and usually prompts much head scratching and disbelief. As with many labels there is more behind it than meets the eye and a little explanation can do no harm.
Our bodies have a number of surfaces that are in contact with the external environment and need protection against all of the abuse that comes its way. Each of these is adapted to its own needs so that we have protective epithelial surfaces in our respiratory, oral, gastrointestinal ocular and reproductive tracts. Part of the basic innate protective system is the production of a secreted mucus layer which sits on the mucosal surface and acts as a physical barrier. This layer is also an ideal medium for many of the mucosal protective proteins, together with adaptive immune molecules such as antibodies to back up the barrier protection.
The molecules which give the mucus layer its characteristic sticky, viscoelastic properties are the mucins. These are sugar rich proteins of very high molecular weight which are able to form gels, hence the mucus layer and barrier. Mucus acts as a very sophisticated filtration system to allow in what is needed and to keep out what will create problems. It is constantly being renewed to be sure that we have continuous protection.
Why were you attracted to the field? Was there a particular moment you realized the future was in mucin?
My own interest in this field has come through the concepts of protection against the external environment and what happens in disease when it fails and needs to be repaired. I didn’t experience a “eureka,” moment when I thought, “Now I’m a mucin biologist,” I found myself immersed in it and have been stuck there ever since (no pun intended we think)!
Are there everyday applications of mucin research we might be familiar with? What about not-so-everyday applications? What organisms have particularly notable mucin either in composition or function?
Most people are aware of mucus through the well known runny noses, saliva dribbles and worse in the gut! However, mucins and mucus are very old molecules and everyone will realize that they are found in slugs, worms, fish, and even jelly fish where they carry out the same protective job. A particularly bizarre use of mucins is found in the Chinese swiftlet, which builds its nest with solidified saliva. This is the main ingredient in birds nest soup, a favourite in Chinese Restaurants, but needless to say is certainly not, “sold,” as a mucin or mucus in any form! We at Zooillogix would like to take a quick moment to thank China for once again setting the bar outstandingly high for bizarre consumption.
Where do you see the future of mucin biology?
Mucins are multifaceted macromolecules which generate interest from many sides. As they are life preserving protective molecules a better understanding of their structure and functions is leading to new approaches to disease therapies and it is here that the future of this field lies.
Do you have children, and if so, do they ever make fun of you?
It is a constant source of disbelief and derision that anyone would want to, “get to grips” with any of this, “mucin stuff,” and has prompted constant taunts along the lines of, here come the snot and spit brigade again….!! Both of my children were utterly devastated when they were old enough to realize that this was my chosen work and insisted, “couldn’t you work on something less, yukky?” They didn’t want to tell their friends that their Dad was a mucin biologist! We feel like this might be the coolest profession for a dad to have next to astronaut for adolescent boys, but maybe that’s just us,
Is there any one country that you might say is the leader in the mucin sciences? If so, might you speculate on why their countrymen are so fascinated with mucin?
In spite of this there are many successful and enthusiastic mucin biologists throughout the world who are prepared to grapple with these exciting molecules. In the University of Bristol UK we have a Mucin Research group which has interests in the gut (gastrointestinal mucins)
The pictures show mucin molecules (left, a mucin network; right, a single mucin molecule) isolated from the human eye and imaged using an atomic force microscope (looks remarkably similar at the molecular level to the Kleenex level…). Courtesy of Dr Monica Berry (Dept Ophthalmology) and Dr Terry McMaster (Dept Physics) University of Bristol.
Links to further information on the 24/7 mucin party at the University of Bristol
In the tear film (eye mucins):
In the reproductive tract (cervical mucins): http://www.bris.ac.uk/clinicalsciencesouth/torc/obsgyn/
Our work also links up with the Physics Department who image mucins at the molecular level:
And with the chemists who synthesise the sugar chains that we find attached to the mucin peptide: