First steps in mother-of-pearl genesis discovered

Nacre, also known as mother-of-pearl, is created naturally by mollusks who use it to line their shells. Uncovering its chemical process could lead to industrial applications in the future. 

Image By: Courtesy of UW Communications

A team of Wisconsin scientists recently came closer to uncovering the elusive process by which nacre, more commonly known as mother-of-pearl, is created in nature.

The strong, resilient and iridescent material often naturally lines the shells of some mollusks and forms the outermost layer of actual pearls. Widely used for decorative purposes, nacre can also be used to make tooth implants, architectural tile and parts of various musical instruments.

UW-Madison physics professor Pupa Gilbert led the team that used spectromicroscopy to observe the chemical process of nacre formation in a mollusk, according to a university release.

With support from the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation, the team uncovered the beginning stages of forming the biomaterial at both atomic and nanometric scales.

"Amazing chemistry happens at the surface of forming nacre," Gilbert said in the release, discussing the rapid dehydration of calcium carbonate that occurs in those beginning steps, crystallizing and transforming the material in a way researchers had previously never observed.

Gilbert said in the release that the key part in forming nacre is in how the atoms are arranged.

“The actual chemical composition of calcium carbonate does not change,” Gilbert said in the release. “Only the structure does upon crystallization."

Gilbert’s new, more detailed understanding of the environmentally friendly biomaterial could one day mean industrial applications for the process, according to the release. These applications could include the creation of durable bone implants and other medical uses, as well as fireproofing and making cars more efficient.

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