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Scientists reveal how ill-tempered bloodworms develop lethal copper fangs!

The bloodworm displaying its four lethal copper fangs (Pic. Courtesy livescience.com)

When we see a devious villain in a film or read about a giant in a fairy tale with teeth that are made of hard metal like copper or iron, we take it as a part of fantasy. That doesn’t hold true anymore as a report in livescience.com mentions that a new study has revealed that a venomous bloodworm species has peculiar and lethal teeth that are made of metal!

The scientists have discovered that it is a simple single protein that helps these worms to convert seafloor bottom copper deposits into frightening fangs.

These worms which are also known as Glycera dibranchiate are bright-red in colour and segmented and can grow up to 14 inches. What makes them deadly are their teeth which are like needles and 0.08 inch long. These are formed with a mixture of melanin, protein and copper which is 10 per cent – highest in any animal!

Living in muddy lands covered and uncovered by tides, these creatures’ tunnel into the sand and strike at the prey – anything and everything they are able to swallow – by ambush. On reaching the victim at a striking distance, the worm upturns its digestive system, including its teeth and uses its stomach like a torpedo.

Once in contact, the worm’s jaws clamp on the prey to inject it with a lethal mix of 32 toxins thereby incapacitating it and eats it alive.

Talking about these fatal predators, Herbert Waite, the study’s co-author in a statement said: "These are very disagreeable worms in that they are ill-tempered and easily provoked. When they encounter another worm, they usually fight using their copper jaws as weapons."

Waite is a biochemist at University of California, Santa Barbara.

The copper teeth which last for five years – the lifespan of the worm — grow by harvesting the metal from marine sediments on the seafloor.

Earlier how the copper was fused to the jaws was unknown and therefore never documented but now this study has unveiled how it is done.

The whole process starts with the worms producing an amino acid DOPA or dihydroxyphenylalanine, using which they collect the copper from the seafloor into a liquid that is thick and rich in protein. The copper is then used by the worms as a catalyst to change DOPA into melanin.

Melanin is a polymer which unites with copper to bring into being four teeth which are needle sharp inside the jaw of the creature.

Also read: Scientists discover worm that chokes deadly tarantula spider to death

According to the scientists, nature made it simple for these worms to synthesise a material that usually requires a lot of effort and time in the laboratory. Commenting on this Waite said: "We never expected protein with such a simple composition, that is, mostly glycine and histidine, to perform this many functions and unrelated activities.”

Having nailed as to how these animals turn out this lethal weapon, the scientists now want to study the chemical process in depth as they could help humankind to create new materials. "These materials could be road signs for how to make and engineer better consumer materials," remarked Waite.

Details of this study were published in the journal Matter.