Animal’s Teeth Lead to a Scientific Discovery

Inside the teeth of a large mollusk, people have discovered a rare mineral, which had only ever before been found inside rocks. The mollusk is a creature called a chiton, which is found along rocky coastlines. 

The new discovery provides explanations for so many things that the chitons do which are thought to be biological marvels. The mineral, santabarbaraite allows the chiton to chew on rocks to find food. Because of this discovery, scientists have been able to 3D print a replica of the tooth, and use it as a foundation to create new durable, ultrahard materials. 

“This mineral has only been observed in geological specimens in very tiny amounts and has never before been seen in a biological context,” said Northwestern’s Derk Joester, the study’s senior author. “It has high water content, which makes it strong with low density. We think this might toughen the teeth without adding a lot of weight.”

An article published by Northwestern University explains more about the mineral and its uses. 

“One of the hardest known materials in nature, chiton teeth are attached to a soft, flexible, tongue-like radula, which scrapes over rocks to collect algae and other food. Having long studied chiton teeth, Joester and his team most recently turned to Cryptochiton stelleri, a giant, reddish-brown chiton that is sometimes affectionately referred to as the “wandering meatloaf.”

To examine the tooth, the research team went to Argonne National Laboratory’s Advanced Photon Source for synchrotron spectroscopy, as well as transmission electron microscopy. The results showed that santabarbaraite was dispersed throughout the chiton’s upper stylus, which is a long, hollow structure that connects the head of the tooth to the radula membrane, which is flexible. 

“The stylus is like the root of a human tooth, which connects the cusp of our tooth to our jaw,” Joester said. “It’s a tough material composed of extremely small nanoparticles in a fibrous matrix made of biomacromolecules, similar to bones in our body.”

Later, the group attempted to recreate this mineral through 3D printing. Their endeavor was successful, and they were able to replicate the mineral in a matter of days, something that the chiton took millions of years to develop. The chiton tooth is a piece biological technology that we can use in the future. 


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