CLEMSON (April 9, 2004) -- The latest issue of Science reports a discovery by a Clemson scientist that challenges 40 years of marine biomineralization research. The internationally respected journal describes the Clemson team's discovery that Eastern Oyster shell growth begins within blood cells. The research advances the understanding of how animals make hard tissue such as shell, bone and teeth. The new research may lead to cures to disease and bone replacement materials.
For 40 years, scientists have theorized that an organic mixture excreted from mantle tissue, which forms oyster skin, induced shell growth.
"New technologies are giving scientists the tools they need to answer the tough questions," said Andrew Mount, adjunct assistant professor of biological sciences at Clemson University and lead author of the article.
When the Clemson researchers used a scanning electron microscope -- a microscope that detects electrons instead of light -- to study immune blood cells from oysters, they discovered that some cells contain crystals.
Based on their observations, the research team concluded that the intracellular crystals are used to form shell. They observed rhombohedral-shaped crystals, leading the researchers to theorize that they were calcium carbonate -- a basic substance in hard tissue. They also observed the number of crystal-bearing cells increased 300 percent when an oyster is healing a shell fracture. Furthermore, the cells travel to the site of shell formation to deposit the crystals.
Scientists and engineers hope that an understanding of biomineralization, the process by which living creatures turn elements into crystals, will lead to breakthroughs in medical and material sciences.
"Nature exhibits exquisite control over the size, shape and organization of crystals," Mount said, adding if engineers can mimic nature, they could build bone replacements, grow crystal communication equipment and design paper-thin protective suits.
"What's really exciting is that this research might lead to a cure for osteoporosis," said Shital Patel, 29, a Clemson graduate student in the department of biological sciences.
An estimated 10 million people have osteoporosis, and another 34 million with low bone mass are at risk of developing the disease, according to the National Osteoporosis Foundation's Web site.
Mount, 46, earned his doctorate in zoology from Clemson University in 1999. Co-authors are Alfred Wheeler, chairman of the Clemson biological sciences department; Rajesh Paradkar, with Dow Chemical Company, and Dennis Snider.
A research leader in advanced materials, automotive engineering, bioengineering and genomics, Clemson University is located in Clemson, S.C. Founded in 1889, the university is a legacy of Thomas Green Clemson who willed his Fort Hill plantation home and surrounding lands to the state of South Carolina to establish "a seminary of high learning." Today, Clemson is a nationally recognized research university, where approximately 17,000 undergraduate and graduate students pursue more than 70 degree programs in five academic colleges. A land-grant university, Clemson serves citizens, communities and businesses statewide through Public Service Activities that include research, regulatory and extension services. Connect to http://www.clemson.edu and http://www.clemson.edu/aorl for more information.
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