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Snail slime - it is impossible to say the words without disgust. Yet the mucus secreted by the giant African land snail may have healing powers to help mend broken bones.

Researchers led by Professor Christopher Viney at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh have found that snail slime contains unusual crystals of calcite. Under certain conditions the slime quickly hardens to form the snail's epiphragm - the plate that seals the aperture of the shell when the animal is dormant. Sixten-year-old high school student Mairi Struthers of Wishaw was a key member of the research team. As part of a project funded by a Nuffield Science Bursary she spent the summer at Edinburgh Zoo collecting and analysing the animals' mucus. It is early days, says Professor Viney, but the snail trail "could point the way to the development of a bone cement based on a natural process".

Details of biomolecular materials research at Heriot-Watt: www.hw.ac.ukcheWWWstaffcv.html

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