Jun 19, 2019 | Updated: 09:31 AM EDT

Scientists Used Bacteria to Make Synthetic Mother-of-Pearl

Apr 25, 2019 08:51 AM EDT

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Mother of pearl with accrued pearls
(Photo : Hannes Grobe/AWI)
Mother of pearl with accrued pearls

Nacre, also known as mother-of-pearl, is an exceptionally tough material that can be found in shells and pearls. One natural source of nacre is the abalone shell, popularly used in soup by boiling the shells.

A biologist from Rochester led a  team that has developed an innovative method to create nacre in the laboratory.

The researchers pointed out that synthetic materials with the highest strength are those made by intentionally mimicking nature.

Nacre is regarded as one of the toughest and stiffest materials. It is produced by mollusks serving as their inner shell layer. The substance comprises the outer layer of pearls as well. This is what gives lustrous shine to the precious stones.

This is not the first time that nacre has been synthetically reproduced. In fact, previous methods used to produce synthetic nacre consist of a complicated process and would also use up a lot of energy.

Recently, Anne S. Meyer, a biologist at the University of Rochester, has developed an inexpensive and environmental-friendly process for making synthetic nacre using a component that is simple yet innovative. 

Meyer, together with her colleagues, made a biologically produced material that has the toughness of natural nacre using bacteria. The end product was observed to be stiff but they were able to bend the material.

The team is optimistic about the creation of the novel material as this can lead to new applications in medicine and engineering. The team also lobbied the idea of constructing buildings on the moon using their synthetic nacre.

One of the unique properties of natural nacre is the layered structure that allows energy to disperse evenly across the material, making it tough and hard to break through to. The team of biologists used two different strains of bacteria to replicate these layers.

The team analyzed the samples made by their bacteria and compared it to nacre produced by mollusks. Under an electron microscope, the layers are similar. 

Meyer explains that synthetic nacre has been previously made used a process that involves extreme temperatures, expensive equipment, toxic chemicals, high-pressure conditions, and requiring the use of polymer layers which are only soluble in non-aqueous solutions. This would result in a bucket of waste at the end of the old procedure. 

The biologist pointed out that using their new method, all researchers would have to do is to grow the bacteria and let them sit in a warm place. This eliminates the waste of materials.

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