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

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As the authors state at the outset of the "Science" paper, "Biomineralization is a major strategy for tissue hardening and manifests an astonishing diversity of bioceramic structures with exquisite microarchitectures that have specially adapted physical properties."

Ten to 15 inches long, the bloodworm comes equipped with a proboscis not ordinarily visible. The proboscis is hydrostatically ejected--i.e., water pressure is used to extend it fast the way a paper noisemaker unfurls when blown. At the end of the fleshy red-pink proboscis are four black jaws that resemble in shape the thorns on a rose bush. The jaws at the end of the proboscis grab and bite prey the way four-pronged devices at the end of long poles are used to grasp and to pluck products from the high shelves of a grocery store. In contrast to the clamworm, the bloodworm's jaws are hollow, like syringes, and are used to conduct venom into the prey.

The researchers found that the jaw tip exhibits the ordered crystalline structure of the copper-based biomineral atacamite [Cu2(OH)3Cl], the first discovered instance of a copper biomineral in a living organism.

"Copper is very nasty stuff," said Waite. "Though needed in trace amounts for enzymatic processes, copper in greater quantities is toxic. Our research leaves us with questions. How does the worm collect all this copper and concentrate it in a safe form until it is invested in these jaws? What kind of biochemical pathways has this organism evolved to prevent copper toxicity, and what kind of protein carriers are there that bring it to the site of mineralization?"

The bloodworm lives in the gravel of marine sediments and smells out its prey, explains Waite. "The worm is going to miss its prey a fair number of times," he said. "And that means that its jaws are being abraded by gravel. So they need to be made of more robust material than the jaws of the clamworm, which is a scavenger and lives by grabbi
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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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