They discovered how the "bloodworm", the terror of the seas, harvests copper to acquire deadly metal jaws

They discovered how the “bloodworm”, the terror of the seas, harvests copper to acquire deadly metal jaws

Bloodworms are terrifying creatures that lurk on the seabed and have fearsome poisonous copper teeth to attack their prey.

Bloodworms are not for the faint of heart. These meaty-looking marine tubes may look harmless from a distance, but make no mistake.

blood worms (also known as “bristles” of the genus Glycera) are carnivores that burrow deep in the mud along the seabed, emerging to seize prey and competitors in their fearsome jaws that are partially composed of copper and laced with paralyzing venom.

Even scientists who study these creatures for a living don’t speak highly of bloodworms.

“These are very unpleasant worms because they have a bad temper and are easily provoked”says biochemist Herbert Waite of the University of California at Santa Barbara.

“When they encounter another worm, they usually fight using their copper jaws as weapons”he adds.

In a new study, led by r William Wonderly, a graduate student at the Waite Laboratory, theResearchers have discovered how the bloodworm species Glycera dibranchiata acquires copper for its jawbone, which makes up about 10% of the overall jaw structure, the rest being made up of proteins and melanin.

These copper fangs are produced naturally by bloodworms.

These copper fangs are produced naturally by bloodworms.

It has already been noted that the combination of copper and melanin in the jaws of bloodworms gives the fangs considerable resistance to abrasion, helping the teeth to last for the animal’s lifetime of up to about five years old.

In the new research, The team dissected bloodworms, analyzed jaw tissue and studied cultured cells in vitro, identifying a structural protein that helps these different chemical components bind together so successfully..

The protein in question, called multitasking protein (MTP), is so efficient that it could pave the way for new processes for making materials, the researchers suggest.

“We did not expect a protein with such a simple composition, i.e. mainly glycine and histidine, to perform so many unrelated functions and activities”Waite said.

“These materials could be signs of how to make and design better consumer materials”he adds.

According to the researchers, MTP plays many chemical roles in the end-to-end gag production process.

These include binding copper (which is mined from marine sediments), catalyzing the formation of melanin, and acting as an organizer and maker, assemble the resulting mixture of protein, copper, and melanin that form the jaws of the bloodworm’s proboscis.

A micrograph of Glycera proboscis.  (Pontin et al., PNAS, 2007

A micrograph of Glycera proboscis. (Pontin et al., PNAS, 2007

It’s a terrific trick, say the researchers, and one that would require a lot of labor and different equipment to replicate in the lab, using conventional equipment.

However, if we can figure out how to replicate it, somehow exploiting natural MTP or mimicking similar chemical functionality, it could be a huge step forward in materials science.

“MTP’s concerted activities in building the Glycera jawbone architecture provide a compelling opportunity to redesign the processing technologies required for durable, high-performance composite and polymer-blended materials.”write the researchers in their article.

Close up of a bloodworm fang.  (Herbert Waite/CC BY-SA)

Close up of a bloodworm fang. (Herbert Waite/CC BY-SA)

“The combination of chemical simplicity and functional versatility of MTP has enormous potential for processing natural and bio-inspired materials”they add.

Scientists point out the surprising thing that all of this ingenuity somehow evolved inside the mouth of a bloodworm. Maybe they’re not so bad after all.

“You have a little worm that makes a jaw as hard and rigid as bronze, and also pottery.”Waite told New Scientist. “And they do it autonomously.”

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