Saturday, November 1, 2008

Sea Urchin Hold Secret of Biomineralization

Used to crush food, for structural support and for defense, the materials of which shells, teeth and bones are composed are the strongest and most durable in the animal world, and scientists and engineers have long sought to mimic them.

A new study describes how the lowly sea urchin transforms calcium carbonate — the same material that forms "lime" deposits in pipes and boilers — into the crystals that make up the flint-hard shells and spines of marine animals. The mechanism, the authors write, could "well represent a common strategy in biomineralization."

The sea urchin larval spicule is a model system for biominerals, and the first one in which the amorphous calcium carbonate precursor was discovered in 1997 by the same Israeli group co-authoring the current PNAS paper. A similar amorphous-to-crystalline transition has since been observed in adult sea urchin spines, in mollusk shells, in zebra fish bones and in tooth enamel. The resulting biominerals are extraordinarily hard and fracture resistant, compared to the minerals of which they are made.

"The amorphous minerals are deposited and they are completely disordered," Gilbert explains. "So the question we addressed is 'how does crystallinity propagate through the amorphous mineral?'"

“We found that at 40-100 nanometer amorphous calcium carbonate particles aggregate into the final morphology. One starts converting to crystalline calcite, then another immediately adjacent converts as well, and another, and so on in a three-dimensional domino effect. The pattern of crystallinity, however, is far from straight. It resembles a random walk, or a fractal, like lightning in the sky or water percolating through a porous medium," explains Gilbert.