Researchers Discovered How Pearls Become Symmetrical

Gillian Sisley

These findings could lead to the next super-material for solar panel energy, and even space travel.

Pearls are one of the most stunning beauties to exist. Used for jewelry and other accessories, they have been a staple of beauty and privilege for centuries now.

But one thing has always stumped researchers — how is it that oysters, mussels and clams can manage such perfectly symmetrical shapes to their pearl? Especially when considering that a pearl starts as a single grain of sand, and then through this magical natural process, a gem is born.

It’s just been found by a team of researchers that oysters, mussels, and clams use a complex system to grow these gems, and it’s not anywhere near as random of a growth process as originally expected.

How are pearls made?

Pearls are made first and foremost because some sort of debris has entered inside the mollusk of an oyster, mussel, or clam, and the creature then tries to protect itself by entrapping the debris in mineral and protein.

This new layer, which is referred to as nacre, builds itself on top of the debris over and over again, ultimately smoothing out any regularities and then resulting in the pearls we’ve all come to know.

Nacre is that same iridescent and shiny material that you’ll find inside a shell, and it’s that same material that overlays on top of the debris to make a round, beautiful shape.

What was the major finding from this research?

On October 19th, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a team of researchers published some fascinating results.

Some of the most interesting data discovered was that the layers of nacre that create a pearl are controlled and regulated by the mollusk. And not only that, but the mollusk also doesn’t just have one purpose to its process, but rather has two basic capabilities.

For one, the mollusk ensures that the layering process of nacre corrects any growths or imperfections that appear on the pearl, ultimately ensuring that the layers are symmetrical. If the mollusk didn’t do this, we would end up with a lot more lopsided pearls.

Secondly, the mollusk is what controls the thickness of the nacre layers, ensuring that if an especially thick layer was applied, the next time around a smaller layer may be applied instead.

Researchers studied keshi pearls collected from Akoya pearl oysters at a pearl farm in Eastern Australia. In one of the pearls showcased in the paper, they found there to be 2,615 layers that were deposited over a period of 548 days.

Their ultimate analysis concluded that the application and thickness of the pearl’s layers of nacre were not as random as we would have originally assumed. But rather the formation of the layers of different thicknesses depended entirely on the thickness of the layer before it.

What does this mean for the future of science?

Now knowing that there is in fact no randomization when it comes to a mollusk producing a pearl, this entirely changes the name of the game. Physicist Pupa Gilbert, who studies biomaterialization at the University of Wisconsin, told Science News:

“Nacre self-heals and when a defect arises, it heals itself within a few layers, without using an external scaffolding or template. Nacre is an even more remarkable material than we had previously appreciated.”

Laura Otter, a biogeochemist at the Australian National University in Canberra and co-author to this pearl study, also told the news source:

“These humble creatures are making a super light and super tough materials so much more easily and better than we do with all our technology.”

She notes that nacre is made up just of calcium, carbonate and protein, and that it is3,000 times tougher than the materials from which it’s made of.”

With this revolutionary new understanding of pearls, there is ample opportunity for nacre to become what is described by co-author of the research, Robert Hovden, as the “next generation of super materials".

Hovden claims that more energy-efficient solar panels or even tougher, more heat-resistant materials could be optimized for the use of space.

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