Scientists at Baltimore's John Hopkins University have shown how manipulating the body's mucus at a nano-scale can trap dangerous bugs and pollutants.

Mucus in the eyes, lungs and stomach does a great job of intercepting viruses, chemicals and airborne particles but it struggles to trap objects smaller than a few hundred nanometers (that's about 1,000 times narrower than a human hair).

The scientists showed that tiny strands in the mucus layer (the mucin fibres, actually) tend to bunch together, creating gaps large enough for pathogens and potentially dangerous pollutants to get in.

Local loogey unbundling

His team succeeded in causing these fibres to 'unbundle' and shrink holes in the protective network mesh, by treating them with a detergent commonly found in unspecified 'personal care' products.

"It was exciting to see particles the size of many potentially dangerous substances become completely trapped in mucus, since mucus-trapping typically leads to harmless removal from our bodies," said one boffin.

This discovery raises the possibility of boosting our mucus network into super-snot that is capable of resisting almost any infection.

Aerosol protection

"If there is an outbreak of influenza, we imagine that doctors could inhale these agents in an aerosolized form and be protected against the virus for several hours," said biomolecular researcher Samuel Lai.

However, since the mucus layer constantly clears from the body, any protective enhancement would be short-lived, adds Lai, with coatings clearing from the lungs in as little as 30 minutes.

The new treatment hasn't even been tested on animals, let alone undergone human trials, so don't go huffing Persil when everyone is sniffling just yet.