(ORDO NEWS) — Glycera worms are known for their unusual fang-like jaws, which are composed of protein, melanin, and a concentration of copper found nowhere else in the animal kingdom.
Scientists have observed how these worms use copper mined from marine sediments to form their jaws, a process described in a study published April 25 in the journal Matter that may be even more unusual than the teeth themselves.
Since bloodworms (Glycera – a genus of marine polychaete worms from the order Phyllodocida. About 45 modern and 3 fossil species.) form their jaws only once, they must be strong and durable enough to last for the entire five-year life of the animal.
With their help, they bite their prey, sometimes piercing the exoskeleton through and through, and inject poison that paralyzes the victim.
“These are very nasty worms because they don’t take bites well and are easily provoked,” said study co-author Herbert Waite, a biochemist at the University of California at Santa Barbara. “When they encounter another worm, they usually fight using their brass jaws as a weapon.”
Waite Labs has been studying bloodworms for 20 years, but it was only recently that they were able to observe the chemical process that forms the jaw from start to finish.
The worm starts with a protein precursor that picks up copper to concentrate into a viscous, protein-rich liquid with a high copper content and phase separation from water.
The protein then uses the copper to catalyze the conversion of the amino acid derivative DOPA into melanin, a polymer that, when combined with the protein, gives jaws metal-like mechanical properties.
Through this process, the worm can easily synthesize material that, if created in a laboratory, would be a complex process involving many different apparatuses, solvents, and temperatures.
“We never expected that a protein with such a simple composition, that is, mainly glycine and histidine, would perform so many functions and unrelated actions,” Waite says.
The team hopes that a better understanding of how the bloodworm runs its offline recycling lab can help rationalize parts of production, which will benefit the industry. “These materials can be road signs for how to create and develop better consumer materials,” Waite says.
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