The researchers discovered that organic molecules affect mineral formation as a continuum of energetic interactions governed by acidic and neutral chemical domains, the researchers said.
"Each type of polysaccharide is slightly different and provides a substrate that can tune the energy barrier for the calcium and carbonate ions to nucleate and begin building a bone or a shell," Giuffre said. "The same process is important in the life cycles of many different freshwater and marine organisms, including the microscopic plankton that support the food chain. Also, today's ocean has the correct recipe for the formation of biominerals, but we know the ocean's chemistry is changing. By learning the mechanisms of biomineralization, we can predict how organisms will respond to these changes."
The work, supported by the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation, is a great example of the value of pursuing fundamental science research, Dove said. If researchers tie patterns of skeletal formation to specific types of molecules, it may also be possible to understand if and why organisms have changed in the fossil record.
In the meantime, the study reveals intricacies of a mineral-making process that is uniquely complex, but achievable by the simplest of organisms.
"People have always wondered, 'How does a biomineral start, and where does a biomineral actually form?'" said Clara Chan, an assistant professor of geological sciences at the University of Delaware College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment, who was not involved in the study. "Microorganisms need to collect the building blocks, then, they need a place to build the biomineral. This research says the biomineral is likely to form on a near neutral polysaccharide, which is like a gel. It m
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