Biomacromolecules within bivalve shells

is chitin abundant?

Oluwatoosin Bunmi A. Agbaje, Ira Ben Shir, David B. Zax, Asher Schmidt*, Dorrit E. Jacob

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

    18 Citations (Scopus)


    Bivalve shells are inorganic-organic nanocomposites whose material properties outperform their purely inorganic mineral counterparts. Most typically the inorganic phase is a polymorph of CaCO3, while the organic phase contains biopolymers which have been presumed to be chitin and/or proteins. Identifying the biopolymer phase is therefore a crucial step in improving our understanding of design principles relevant to biominerals. In this work we study seven shells; four are examples of nacroprismatic shells (Alathyria jacksoni, Pinctada maxima, Hyriopsis cumingii and Cucumerunio novaehollandiae), one homogeneous (Arctica islandica), and two are crossed lamellar (Callista kingii, Tridacna gigas). Both intact shells, their organic extracts as isolated after decalcification in acid, and the periostracum overlay have been studied by solid-state CP-MAS NMR, FTIR, SEM and chemical analysis. In none of the shells examined in this work do we find a significant contribution to the organic fraction from chitin or its derivatives despite popular models of bivalve biomineralization which assume abundant chitin in the organic fraction of mollusk bivalve shells. In each of the nacroprismatic extracts the 13C NMR spectra represent similar proteinaceous material, Ala and Gly-rich and primarily organized as β-sheets. A different, yet highly conserved protein was found in the periostracum covering each of the three nacreous shells studied. The Arctica islandica shells with homogeneous microstructure contained proteins which do not appear to be silk-like, while in the crossed lamellar shells we extracted too little organic matter to characterize. 

    Statement of Significance: Hydrophobic macromolecules are structural components within the calcareous inorganic matrix of bivalve shells and are responsible for enhanced materials properties of the biominerals. Prevalent models suggest that chitin is such major hydrophobic component. Contrary to that we show that chitin is rare within the hydrophobic biopolymers which primarily consist of proteinaceous matter with structural motifs as silk-like β-sheets, or others yet to be determined. Recognizing that diverse proteinaceous motifs, devoid of abundant chitin, can yield the optimized mechanical properties of bivalve shells is critical both to understand the mechanistic pathways by which they regulate biomineralization and for the design of novel bioinspired materials.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)176-187
    Number of pages12
    JournalActa Biomaterialia
    Publication statusPublished - 15 Oct 2018


    • Biomineralization
    • Chitin
    • Mollusk shell
    • Periostracum
    • Silk
    • Solid state NMR

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