Biologists have figured out how blood worms grow their copper teeth

(ORDO NEWS) — Scientists were able to follow the growth and formation of the structure of teeth in marine predatory worms – a unique tissue that consists of a single “universal” protein reinforced with metal crystals.

Glycera marine polychaetes are small but aggressive demersal predators, nicknamed “bloodwoms”. They are armed with poison and have unusually strong jaws containing an abnormally high amount of copper.

Tiny, just a couple of millimeters, the teeth of Glycera dibranchiata are composed of more than 10 percent copper.

Their structure can help create new reliable and durable materials, according to Herbert Waite and his colleagues who have studied the structure of the teeth of “blood worms”. Article published in Matter magazine .

Due to the presence of minerals and copper crystals, Glycera teeth are as strong as bronze or ceramic. In addition, they are rich in melanin crystals, a pigment capable of performing a wide variety of functions.

It is known that such melanin and copper structures are immersed in the protein matrix, like metal reinforcing threads in the rubber of a car tire.

This provides the tooth with strength and resistance to stress, allowing it to serve properly for all five years that the life of the “bloody worm” continues.

Biologists have figured out how blood worms grow their copper teeth 2
On the left, the jaw of the polychaete worm Glycera, armed with four heavy-duty teeth; on the right is one of these teeth under a microscope

After isolating live Glycera cells , the scientists cultured them in the laboratory, following the growth and development of dental tissue.

It turned out that the basis of the “copper” tooth is formed by a single protein, and arranged quite simply, mainly from the residues of the amino acids glycine and histidine.

The authors called it “Multi-Tasking Protein” (MTP), since it is also responsible for the formation of the entire tissue.

Cells produce a precursor protein that accumulates copper from the environment. This copper allows MTP to catalyze the synthesis of melanin, further strengthening.

“We never expected that a protein with such a simple structure would be able to perform so many different, unrelated functions,” Waitey said.

A living cell implements this multi-stage process without visible effort, but it will not be so easy to reproduce it artificially.

However, if it succeeds, this technology will make it possible to obtain useful new composite materials – as strong and resistant to abrasion as the frightening copper teeth of “bloody worms”.

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