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

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

Bloodworms are not for the faint of heart. These meaty-looking sea tubes may seem harmless from a distance, but don’t be fooled.

the blood worms (also known as “bristle worms” of the genus Glycera) are carnivores that burrow deep into 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 the scientists who study these creatures for a living don’t speak highly of bloodworms.

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

“When they meet 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, lResearchers discovered how the bloodworm species Glycera dibranchiata acquires copper for its jaw, which makes up about 10 percent of the overall jaw structure, with the remainder made up of protein and melanin.

These copper fangs are produced naturally by bloodworms.
These copper fangs are produced naturally by bloodworms.

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

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

The protein in question, called multitasking protein (MTP), is so effective that it could help point the way to new material-making processes, the researchers suggest.

“We never expected that a protein with such a simple composition, that is, mainly glycine and histidine, would perform so many unrelated functions and activities”dice Waite .

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

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

These include binding copper (which is extracted from marine sediment), catalyzing melanin formation, and acting as an organizer and manufacturer, assembling the resulting mix of protein, copper, and melanin that form the jaws on 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 formidable trick, the researchers say, and one that would require a lot of work and different equipment to replicate in a lab setting, using conventional equipment.

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

“MTP’s concerted activities in constructing the Glycera jaw architecture present a compelling opportunity to rethink the design of the processing technologies required for high-performance, sustainable composite and blended polymer materials.”the researchers write 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 in MTP has enormous potential for the processing of natural and bio-inspired materials”they add.

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

“You have a little worm that is making a jaw as hard and rigid as bronze, and some pottery too.”dijo Waite a New Scientist . “And they are doing it autonomously.”

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