These Ocean-Dwelling Bristle Worms Have Jaws Made of Metal

Although human jaws can take a beating—ask Adonis Creed—they have nothing on those belonging to ocean-dwelling bristle worms. The worms have “remarkably stable” jaws according to scientists, which have helped the creatures survive for 500 million years. Now, the results of a new study show that’s the case because the worms’ jaws are partially made of metal.

Neatorama picked up on the new study, which researchers published in the journal, Multiscale Experiments and Modeling in Biomaterials and Biological Matters. (Talk about a journal name to chew on!) Professor Christian Hellmich at the Vienna University of Technology led the team as it sought to better understand the bristle worm jaw’s unique blend of hardness and elasticity.

An image of a bristly marine worm that has a jaw partially made of metal.

Martin Gühmann

The researchers took a microscopic look at the jaw structures of the cosmopolitan bristle worm, Platynereis dumerilii, for their study. P. dumerilii, like the other worms in the polychaeta class of marine worm, have bodies that consist of segments; with each segment containing fleshy protrusions with bristles. (The worms can also deliver fairly gnarly stings with their bristles, which cause redness, swelling, and rashes.)

Using some very complex measuring and weighing techniques, the researchers were able to identify iron atoms in P. dumerilii‘s jaws; ones incorporated into the protein structures that build the jaw’s material.

“On its own, the fact that there are metal atoms in the bristle worm jaw does not explain its excellent material properties,” says Hellmich said in a press release. Indeed, the researchers explain it’s a combination of the iron atoms and protein structures that allows for the chomping magic.

“The construction principle that has made bristle worm jaws so successful apparently originated about 500 million years ago,” Florian Raible, another project researcher, added in the press release. The iron atoms are “incorporated directly into the protein chains and ensure that different protein chains are held together,” Raible added.

An image of a bristly marine worm that has a jaw partially made of metal.

Martin Gühmann

It’s this combination of structural shape and iron atoms that makes the worms’ jaws hard, yet elastic. The researchers note that while the jaws’ protein structures are not exclusively metal, they still behave as if they were. Which is just freakin’ incredible.

Ultimately, Hellmich and his colleagues hope to use the bristle worm’s jaw as a source of inspiration. “Biology could serve as inspiration here, for completely new kinds of materials,” Hellmich added in the press release. “Perhaps it is even possible to produce high-performance materials in a biological way—much more efficiently and environmentally friendly than we manage today.”

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