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Scientists discover how bloodworms make unique copper teeth

Researchers hope understanding the process bloodworms use to make their hook-shaped jaws will help humans manufacture better materials.

(CN) — The good news about bloodworms is the makeup of their copper-infused jaws is unique in the animal kingdom, and research published in the journal Matter on Monday analyzes the distinctive methods used to create these strong structures. The bad news is that's why a bloodworm bite hurts so much.

“These are very disagreeable worms in that they are ill tempered and easily provoked,” said co-author Herbert Waite, a biochemist at University of California, Santa Barbara in a statement. “When they encounter another worm, they usually fight using their copper jaws as weapons.”

Understanding the formation of strong biological structures like bloodworm teeth, spinal cartilage and squid beaks may help people manufacture and dispose of stronger materials.

"High-performance natural materials play a critical role in informing modern material design and development,” researchers explain in the paper. "Metal-binding proteins are prominent adaptations, particularly in natural load- bearing systems, and are becoming increasingly amenable to bio-inspired translation.”

Discovered in 1868, Glycera dibranchiata, better known as the bloodworm, is a marine worm with four black fang-like jaws used to inject prey with paralytic venom. Since bloodworms only form these jaws once in their five-year lifespan, they have to last a lifetime of catching prey and fighting off predators.

Each hooked tooth-like structure is 2 millimeters long and made up of 50% protein, 40% melanin and 10% copper. Melanin, the same compound that gives skin color, along with copper pulled from ocean sediment, strengthens each hook against wear.

Researchers from the University of California analyzed the proteins that make up the bloodworm jaw, dubbing a particularly interesting molecule the multi-tasking polypeptide.

Made up of common amino acids, the multi-tasking polypeptide performs several functions, including recruiting the copper and processing it to form the thin layers of melanin to create the unique tooth-like structures.

While the jaw formation comes naturally to each bloodworm, the same process performed by humans would require careful measurements, specialized equipment and lab-controlled temperatures.

“We never expected protein with such a simple composition, that is, mostly glycine and histidine, to perform this many functions and unrelated activities,” Waite said.

With more research, Waite and his team hope to uncover the secret to maker better materials for industry.

“These materials could be road signs for how to make and engineer better consumer materials,” Waite added.

The National Science Foundation and the Lam Research Corporation funded this research.

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