Holographic X-ray Nano-Tomography Reveals How Mother-of-Pearl Self-Assembles Into a Perfect Structure

A cross-section through a shell showing the periodically layered nacre on top of a prismatic shell structure.
Credit: © Igor Zlotnikov

Mollusks build shells to protect their soft tissues from predators. Nacre, also known as the mother of pearl, has an intricate, highly regular structure that makes it an incredibly strong material. Depending on the species, nacres can reach tens of centimeters in length. No matter the size, each nacre is built from materials deposited by a multitude of single cells at multiple different locations at the same time. How exactly this highly periodic and uniform structure emerges from the initial disorder was unknown until now.

Nacre formation starts uncoordinated with the cells depositing the material simultaneously at different locations. Not surprisingly, the early nacre structure is not very regular. At this point, it is full of defects. “In the very beginning, the layered mineral-organic tissue is full of structural faults that propagate through a number of layers like a helix. In fact, they look like a spiral staircase, having either right-handed or left-handed orientation,” says Dr. Igor Zlotnikov, research group leader at the B CUBE – Center for Molecular Bioengineering at TU Dresden. “The role of these defects in forming such a periodic tissue has never been established. On the other hand, the mature nacre is defect-free, with a regular, uniform structure. How could perfection emerge from such disorder?”

The researchers from the Zlotnikov group collaborated with the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) in Grenoble to take a very detailed look at the internal structure of the early and mature nacre. Using synchrotron-based holographic X-ray nano-tomography the researchers could capture the growth of nacre over time. “Nacre is an extremely fine structure, having organic features below 50 nm in size. Beamline ID16A at the ESRF provided us with an unprecedented capability to visualize nacre in three-dimensions,” explains Dr. Zlotnikov. “The combination of electron dense and highly periodical inorganic platelets with delicate and slender organic interfaces makes nacre a challenging structure to image. Cryogenic imaging helped us to obtain the resolving power we needed,” explains Dr. Pacureanu from the X-ray Nanoprobe group at the ESRF.

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