Today’s Solutions: December 09, 2022

There are plenty of unusual creatures in the world, from weird species of worms with multiple branching bodies, to spooky parasites which eat and replace fish tongues.

Another fascinating creature is the bloodworm, which is famous for its unusual fang-like jaws. These unique protrusions are composed of copper and the protein melanin which they use to inject paralyzing venom into their prey. Bloodworms only form their jaws once, meaning they need to be resilient enough to last the creature’s entire five-year lifespan.

“These are very disagreeable worms in that they are ill-tempered and easily provoked,” explained Herbert Waite, a biochemist who has studied bloodworms for 20 years. “When they encounter another worm, they usually fight using their copper jaws as weapons.”

It was previously unknown to scientists how the copper got into the fangs, however, Waite and his team from the University of California have recently cracked this unusual case.

How do bloodworms form their copper fangs?

A protein first makes copper concentrate into a viscous liquid that separates itself from water due to its high metallic value. The protein then uses the copper to catalyze a reaction, converting amino acids – like glycine and histidine – to melanin, a polymer that gives the jaw mechanical properties, similar to manufactured metals.

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

Why is this research important?

Understanding the process of bloodworm fang formation is useful as it has multiple industrial applications. Parts of production lines could take some tips from the worm’s self-contained processing laboratory to streamline their processing. Waite explains this applies to materials we use for road signs and in the engineering of better consumer materials.

Source study: MatterA multi-tasking polypeptide from bloodworm jaws: Catalyst, template, and copolymer in film formation

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