Urchin Teeth May Lead To Tools That Never Need Sharpening

ScienceDaily reports –

To survive in a tumultuous environment, sea urchins literally eat through stone, using their teeth to carve out nooks where the spiny creatures hide from predators and protect themselves from the crashing surf on the rocky shores and tide pools where they live. The rock-boring behavior is astonishing, scientists agree, but what is truly remarkable is that, despite constant grinding and scraping on stone, urchin teeth never, ever get dull. The secret of their ever-sharp qualities has puzzled scientists for decades, but now a new report by scientists from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and their colleagues has peeled back the toothy mystery. Writing in the journal Advanced Functional Materials, a team led by UW-Madison professor of physics Pupa Gilbert describes the self-sharpening mechanism used by the California purple sea urchin to keep a razor-sharp edge on its choppers. The urchin’s self-sharpening trick, notes Gilbert, is something that could be mimicked by humans to make tools that never need honing. “The sea urchin tooth is complicated in its design. It is one of the very few structures in nature that self-sharpen,” says Gilbert, explaining that the sea urchin tooth, which is always growing, is a biomineral mosaic composed of calcite crystals with two forms — plates and fibers — arranged crosswise and cemented together with super-hard calcite nanocement. Between the crystals are layers of organic materials that are not as sturdy as the calcite crystals. “The organic layers are the weak links in the chain,” Gilbert explains. “There are breaking points at predetermined locations built into the teeth. It is a concept similar to perforated paper in the sense that the material breaks at these predetermined weak spots.”

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