Demonic-Looking ‘Bloodworms’ Harvest Copper for Deadly Metal Jaws

What’s foul-tempered, has translucent skin, and bites its prey with venomous copper jaws? It’s the bloodworm, a delightfully freaky wriggler that measures about 15 inches long and has puzzled scientists for decades with its bizarre metal teeth. 

In addition to earning their creepy name for their equally creepy see-through skin, which exposes the hemoglobin in their blood, these worms harvest copper from their environment to strengthen their jaws for combat and carnivory. 

Now, scientists led by William Wonderly, a graduate student at the University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB), have solved some of the open questions about how and why these animals evolved this mouthful of copper. The results confirm the “impressive wear resistance” of bloodworm jaws and hold “tremendous potential for bio-inspired and natural materials processing,” according to a study published on Monday in the journal Matter.

While all animals have some metals circulating in their bodies, the fang-like jaws of bloodworms contain “significant quantities of copper (up to 10% by weight),” reports the new study. The way these animals hunt is like something out of an alien horror movie: The worms turn their digestive system inside-out and launch their four-pronged fangs at their prey. Their venomous bites can puncture through hard-shelled mollusks and crustaceans, efficiently killing these animals, and their sudden strikes can even send humans to the hospital with severe allergic reactions.

“These are very disagreeable worms in that they are ill-tempered and easily provoked,” said Herbert Waite, senior author of the study and a biochemist at UCSB, in a statement. “When they encounter another worm, they usually fight using their copper jaws as weapons.”

To reconstruct the process the worms use to make these reinforced jaws, Wonderly and his colleagues conducted “state-of-the-art transcriptomic methods,” which is a type of gene sequencing, series of on specimens of the species Glycera dibranchiata acquired from the Bloodworm Depot, a bait dealer in Maine, according to the study. 

With this approach,  study was able to isolate the crucial role of a multi-tasking protein (MTP) in attracting and processing copper from the worms’ environment. MTP achieves these ends “by assuming unprecedented roles as a building block, organizer, and fabricator—a processing feat of considerable relevance to the autonomous production of other polymer composites, blends, and/or networks,” the researchers said in the study.

The identification of this protein opens a new window into the full process behind the development of the animal’s characteristic bite, which has enabled it to become a force of nature in its seabed environment. 

Though the study has shed new light on the terrifying jaws of the bloodworm, there are still many secrets to be unlocked about these animals, including the exact role of copper in catalyzing their venom. To that end, scientists will have to bear the disagreeable temperaments of these unique creatures in future experiments to better understand their amazing abilities.

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