Probing the Mysteries of Shark Dermis: A Potential Breakthrough in Medical Science?

by Amir Hussein
shark skin biochemistry

At the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, the spiny dogfish (Squalus acanthias), a diminutive shark species, is under study. Photo Credit: Etty Bachar-Wikström

In their natural habitats, sharks demonstrate an extraordinary capacity for wound healing, exhibiting a degree of recovery that sets them apart from other aquatic species. While this regenerative prowess has yet to be rigorously verified in a laboratory setting, certain chemical constituents present in shark dermis are believed to hold considerable promise for medical applications.

Shark Dermis Biochemistry Research

Exploring these prospects, a team of dermatology experts from Sweden’s Karolinska Institute conducted research on the spiny dogfish (Squalus acanthias) and other related species of cartilaginous fish at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) in Woods Hole. Their objective was to delve into the specialized biochemistry of these creatures’ dermis. Prior studies in various laboratories on sharks have already contributed to the invention of a novel antibiotic and the identification of biochemical pathways that are crucial for cystic fibrosis research.

The research duo, Jakob Wikström, an associate dermatology professor and principal investigator at Karolinska, along with Etty Bachar-Wikström, a senior researcher, examined the dermal mucus of two shark species and their kin, the little skates, at the MBL. Sharks are unique among fish for their sandpaper-like rough skin, which raised questions about the presence and nature of a protective mucus layer on their skin.

The chain catshark (Scyliorhinus retifer) is recognized for its biofluorescence and is one of the four elasmobranch species (comprising sharks, skates, rays, and sawfish) known for this characteristic. Photo Credit: Jakob Wikström and Etty Bachar-Wikström

“Fish biology is generally better understood than shark biology, largely due to the ease of handling fish and the greater economic interest they attract,” explained Wikström. Though sharks are also fish, he emphasized that they belong to the cartilaginous group (Chondrichthyes) rather than the bony fishes (Osteichthyes), which represent the majority.

Their recent findings on the mucus layer were published in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences. “Our goal with this publication was to provide a detailed molecular characterization of shark skin, a task that has not been thoroughly undertaken previously,” noted Bachar-Wikström.

The investigation revealed that the mucus layer on shark skin, while exceedingly thin, is chemically distinct from that of bony fish. Shark mucus, she mentioned, is less acidic, tending towards a neutral pH, and surprisingly, bears more resemblance chemically to certain mammalian mucus, including that of humans, than it does to that of bony fish.

Biomedical Applications Potential

This discovery corroborates the “singular nature of shark molecular biology,” as Wikström put it. “They are not mere aquatic inhabitants but have distinct biological features, which could potentially lead to various medical applications for humans. For instance, considering mucins [mucosal proteins], it is conceivable to develop novel topical treatments for wounds.” He referenced existing wound-care products derived from codfish as an example of such innovation, suggesting a similar potential for shark-derived materials.

Bachar-Wikström highlighted the significance of understanding these remarkable creatures, both for their relevance to human medicine and to gain insight into their survival mechanisms. She considers their work “an initial step towards a more profound molecular comprehension.”

Ongoing Investigations and Prospects Ahead

Wikström and Bachar-Wikström are preparing a series of publications to further elucidate the unique biochemical traits of these species, which include the chain catshark (Scyliorhinus retifer), the little skate (Leucoraja erinacea), and the spiny dogfish. These upcoming studies are expected to provide a granular analysis of the different cellular types in the dermis and a more detailed examination of the healing properties of shark skin.

“Species that are evolutionarily distant from us can still yield critical data applicable to human health,” said Wikström.

Although extensive research exists on the healing processes in zebrafish, according to him, “shark wound healing has not been explored to the same degree, making our research particularly intriguing because of the unknown factors we may uncover. It’s an exploration into uncharted scientific territory.”

The researchers credit the MBL with providing essential resources that facilitated their research, including access to an extensive collection of specimen and expertise in handling these species. “This level of specialized knowledge is rare to find,” Wikström acknowledged.

Citation: “Identification of Novel Glycans in the Mucus Layer of Shark and Skate Skin” by Etty Bachar-Wikström, Kristina A. Thomsson, Carina Sihlbom, Lisa Abbo, Haitham Tartor, Sara K. Lindén and Jakob D. Wikstrom, 19 September 2023, International Journal of Molecular Sciences.
DOI: 10.3390/ijms241814331

The study received financial support from HudFonden.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about shark skin biochemistry

What is unique about the biochemistry of shark skin?

Shark skin contains chemical compounds that may have significant biomedical potential. Unlike other fish, sharks have a thin mucus layer that is chemically different and less acidic, sharing similarities with mammalian mucus, including human mucus, which could lead to novel medical treatments.

How does shark skin contribute to medical research?

Research into shark skin has led to the development of new antibiotics and insights into cystic fibrosis. The unique properties of shark mucus, such as its molecular similarity to human mucus, may also inspire innovative wound care treatments.

What species are being studied for their unique skin biochemistry?

The spiny dogfish (Squalus acanthias) and the chain catshark (Scyliorhinus retifer) are among the species being studied for their skin’s unique biochemical properties.

Where is the research on shark skin biochemistry being conducted?

The research is being carried out by dermatology researchers from the Karolinska Institute at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole.

What are the potential applications of shark skin research in human medicine?

Potential applications include the development of new topical treatments for wound care, inspired by the molecular biology of shark mucus, which could be beneficial due to its similarity to human mucus.

What makes the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) a unique place for this research?

The MBL boasts specialized resources such as a large collection of shark and skate specimens and a team of experts experienced in handling these unique species, which is a rare competence globally.

More about shark skin biochemistry

You may also like


Sarah K November 5, 2023 - 3:37 pm

hey does anyone know if they are doing similar research on other animals, seems like we’re only scratching the surface with what nature can teach us.

Emily R November 6, 2023 - 2:01 am

gotta say its cool how the article highlights the unique aspects of shark biology, i always enjoy when science reveals the hidden sides of what we take for granted.

Mike Johnson November 6, 2023 - 9:58 am

really fascinating how we’re finding all this new stuff about sharks i thought they were just eating machines but turns out their skin is like a medical goldmine?

Dave L November 6, 2023 - 12:42 pm

the part about the mucus being less acidic is interesting, wonder how that plays into their healing abilities, or if it’s just another thing that makes sharks super tough.


Leave a Comment

* By using this form you agree with the storage and handling of your data by this website.

SciTechPost is a web resource dedicated to providing up-to-date information on the fast-paced world of science and technology. Our mission is to make science and technology accessible to everyone through our platform, by bringing together experts, innovators, and academics to share their knowledge and experience.


Subscribe my Newsletter for new blog posts, tips & new photos. Let's stay updated!

© 2023 SciTechPost