19March 2021 ESRFnews
FOUND in chalk, limescale and antacid, calcium carbonate is not beautiful. But then, through bio-mineralisation, the same inorganic chemical is transformed into one of nature s most coveted substances: nacre, or mother of pearl. The process is as fascinating for its underlying science as it is for its physical outcome because no-one knows exactly what that underlying science is. These are amazing structures, says Igor Zlotnikov of the B CUBE Centre for Molecular Bioengineering at the
Exposing beauty ESRF techniques are helping physicists understand one of nature s most alluring substances.
ISTOCK/EUN KYOUNG JUNG
Dresden University of Technology in Germany. Studying them has been a huge topic for at least 150 years. As a physicist, Zlotnikov is, if not unique, then some-
what rare in his approach to biomineralisation. Although it is a field that attracts scientists from numerous different disciplines, many of these are within chemistry and the life sciences, which tend to focus on the biological and biochemical aspects of the phenomenon. Zlotnikov and his colleagues, on the other hand, want to distil it down to its purest physical components a goal driven by more than the physicist s desire for theoretical parsimony. Aside from their beauty, biomineralised microstructures have physical properties that often belie their essential makeup and the benign conditions of their formation: the toughness of nacre, for instance, is three orders of magni- tude greater than the aragonite it is made of. Knowing the physical driving forces that dictate the formation of these incredible structures could help engineers make their own
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