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Sea urchin yields a key secret of biomineralization
Date:10/27/2008

MADISON The teeth and bones of mammals, the protective shells of mollusks, and the needle-sharp spines of sea urchins and other marine creatures are made-from-scratch wonders of nature.

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.

Now, harnessing the process of biomineralization may be closer to reality as an international team of scientists has detailed a key and previously hidden mechanism to transform amorphous calcium carbonate into calcite, the stuff of seashells. The new insight promises to inform the development of new, superhard materials, microelectronics and micromechanical devices.

In a report today (Oct. 27) in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), a group led by University of Wisconsin-Madison physicist Pupa Gilbert 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."

"If we can harness these mechanisms, it will be fantastically important for technology," argues Gilbert, a UW-Madison professor of physics. "This is nature's bottom-up nanofabrication. Maybe one day we will be able to use it to build microelectronic or micromechanical devices."

Gilbert, who worked with colleagues from Israel's Weizmann Institute of Science, the University of California at Berkeley and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, used a novel microscope that employs the soft-X-rays produced by synchrotron radiation to observe how the sea urchin builds its spicules, the sharp crystalline "bones" that constitute the animal's endoskeleton at the larval st
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Contact: Pupa Gilbert
pupa@physics.wisc.edu
608-262-5829
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Source:Eurekalert

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