FunNature & AnimalThey discover how the bloodworm grows metal fangs

They discover how the bloodworm grows metal fangs

Glycera dibranchiata is a poisonous worm that lives in the marshes, it is bright red and can be up to 35 centimeters long. Bloodworms or bristle worms, as they are also known, have teeth, more specifically needle-shaped ones with 10% copper in their composition .

This curious animal is carnivorous and hunts by digging in the sand. When a bloodworm is close enough to attack, it inverts its digestive system (which includes its teeth) and launches its guts out of its body like a torpedo towards its target. Upon contact, the worm’s jaw closes and it injects its victim with a deadly venom containing 32 different types of toxins, paralyzing the prey, then eating it alive.

“These are very nasty worms in the sense that they are moody and easily provoked,” said Herbert Waite, a biochemist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, in the United States. “When they meet another worm, they often fight using their copper jaws as weapons.”

In a new study, recently published in the journal Matter , a group of researchers studied how the earthworm species Glycera dibranchiata synthesizes copper, which it collects from the sediments at the bottom of the sea, to form its jaw, which forms around the 10% of its overall structure.

It had previously been observed that the combination of copper and melanin in the jaws of bloodworms gives the fangs considerable abrasion resistance , helping the teeth last up to about five years of the animal’s life.

In the new research, the team dissected bloodworms, analyzed jawbone tissue and studied cells grown in vitro, identifying a structural protein that helps these different chemical components bind together so successfully. The protein that has been found is called multitasking protein (MTP) , and it is so effective that it could help create new material-making processes, the researchers suggest.

The researchers say this natural process allows the worms to easily synthesize a material that would normally require a lot of effort to make in a lab. “We never expected that a protein with such a simple composition, that is, mostly glycine and histidine, would perform so many unrelated functions and activities,” says Waite, who is the lead author of the study. “These materials could provide clues to how to make and engineer better consumable materials” .

According to the researchers, MTP plays numerous chemical roles in the jawbone production process. These include binding copper (which the bloodworm obtains from marine sediments), catalyzing the formation of melanin, and acting as an organizer and manufacturer, assembling the resulting mix of proteins, copper, and melanin that make up the animal’s jaws.

This is a formidable trick , the researchers say, that would require a lot of work and different equipment to reproduce in a lab using conventional equipment. However, if one can figure out how to replicate it, somehow harnessing natural MTP or mimicking similar chemical functionalities, it could be a huge step forward in materials science.

“The concerted activities of the MTP in constructing the architecture of the Glycera jaw present a compelling opportunity to rethink the design of the processing technologies required for high-performance and sustainable composite and blended polymeric materials,” the researchers write in His article. “The combination of the chemical simplicity and functional versatility of MTP holds enormous potential for the processing of bio-inspired and natural materials,” say the scientists.


Referencia: Wonderly, W. 2022. A multi-tasking polypeptide from bloodworm jaws: Catalyst, template, and copolymer in film formation. Matter. DOI:

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