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Bloodworm's way with copper likely provides paradigm for new materials

Santa Barbara, Calif.--Researchers report in the Oct. 11 "Science" the first detection of a living organism that makes a copper-containing mineral structure as part of its skeleton. The finding is remarkable because the amount of copper detected in the jaw tip of the marine bloodworm would normally be toxic to an organism.

The researchers determined that copper also occurs in non-mineral form in the bloodworm jaw where it may act as a structural element in cross-linking long chains of fibrous proteins. According to the authors, "The marriage of protein with copper mineral as well as with bound copper ions is an intriguing concept per se but may also serve as a design prototype for new materials that need to be hard, lightweight, and durable."

In addition, they found the non-mineral form of copper on the surface of the jaw canal through which venom is injected. That copper may be acting as a catalyst that activates venom being discharged by the worm into its prey.

The authors include University of California Biology Professor Herbert Waite and Chemistry and Materials Professor Galen Stucky. First author Helga Lichtenegger, who was trained in Austria as a physicist, approached Waite and Stucky about working with them on a research project. Waite dipped into a repository of promising projects, which he calls his "orphans," and suggested Glycera dibranchiata--better known to fishermen as the common bloodworm, "favorite bait for certain kinds of fish," according to Waite.

"Back in 1980 two British investigators reported high levels of copper [up to 13 percent by weight] and zinc in the jaws or fangs of two rather common species of polychaete worms," said Waite, who is an expert on mussels and the fibers mussels make to attach themselves to stones in inter-tidal basins. The mussel fibers consist largely of proteins, but one percent of their weight content is metallic--copper, zinc, or iron. "I have been trying to understand what rol
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Contact: Jacquelyn Savani
jsavani@engineering.ucsb.edu
805-893-4301
University of California, Santa Barbara - Engineering
10-Oct-2002


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