Social norms have unfortunately placed a negative connotation on mucus, despite the substance's extremely important role in our bodies. Experts are currently trying to decipher the advanced mechanisms through which the stuff enables us to smell, reproduce, and avoid infections.
Katharina Ribbeck, a biological engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
(MIT), in Cambridge, is fascinated with this material. She describes it as the body's first line of defense against being infected by bacteria, viruses and other pathogens.
The investigator specializes in studying the antiviral properties of mucins, the compounds that make up the basis of mucus. The stuff covers wet surfaces in the body, protecting them against contamination.
What is especially interesting about how it works is that it maintains its protective effects even while it allows nutrients, signaling molecules, and certain types of cells to pass through. This selectivity is one of its most useful and important functions.
“Without it, we wouldn’t be able to smell, we wouldn’t be able to reproduce, and we would all be the victims of pathogens,” Ribbeck explains. She holds an appointment as the Eugene Bell Career Development assistant professor of biological engineering at the Institute.
The expert hopes that, by studying mucins in detail, she will be able to figure out how this selectivity occurs. “Oftentimes they’re regarded as inert scaffold elements, but the picture that is emerging is that they really have an active function in the body’s defense system,” the investigator explains.
In a paper published in the latest issue of the journal Biomacromolecules, the researcher and her team describe the creation of a purified mucin-based gel. These proteins resemble long threads, and also contain large amounts of sugar molecules.
The National Institutes of Health-funded (NIH) investigation also provides a potential explanation for why rinsing your nose with salty water while suffering from a cold or the flu tends to alleviate symptoms. Apparently, high salt concentrations make mucins less penetrable.
The research group now plans to conduct an in-depth investigation into how some bacteria and microbes are able to penetrate mucus, and infect our bodies through this route. This study could result in the creation of new methods of protection against many transmissible diseases.