Health, Bones, Teeth, Shells and biomineralisation

December 4, 2012 by  

This post is one of several exploring the research and creative processes Giles and I have undertaken for our project Lifestreams, an Art+Tech collaboration with industry partner, Philips R&D in Cambridge as part of Anglia Ruskin University’s Visualise programme.

What I did not yet know – and have been discovering – is just incredible!

Our explorations for Lifestreams initiated further research into bio–mineralisation in animals such as bones and seas-hells. It has opened my eyes – even more widely – into the utter inventiveness of Nature.

I studied architecture and spend several years in design research working on the analysis of morphology and dynamics at urban and architectural scale; e.g. how streets and public spaces and their features are organised and how people move through them – so, naturally, I have an ongoing fascination with patterns large and small, both man made and natural, as inspiration and reference for design ideas.

From this basis and with previous personal explorations into biomimetics many years ago (screen sculpture), I thought that it would be good to connect the idea of lifecharms and our shell concepts with the actual processes of bio–mineralisation as they occur in living systems.

To do this, I would need to have a better understanding of the real thing. Extraordinarily the last 30 years or so can really be seen as a new dawn of human discovery of the nano-scale in nature: Many scientists have been uncovering the most amazing natural phenomena of biological fabrication, self-assembly and material composition at the micro-scale.

Knowledge and research into bio–mineralisation has been of huge area of interest in biophysics, chemistry, medical and biological science. It has opened up new routes in areas such as tissue engineering for bone healing, design and production of prosthetics (i.e. limbs etc) and insights into nano-technologies and materials. For instance, this has helped in identifying bio-ceramics for bone scaffolds that could be used in medical procedures. Research into bio-mineralisation has prompted many innovations and holds a further promise in others fields well beyond medical sciences.

So setting out with virtually no understanding of bio-mineralisation I have come to learn that most living systems – ourselves included – are in fact expert at producing hard mineral deposits by growing them in crystal form. Organisms mix living tissue structures with the creation of a variety of crystalline substructures in very deliberate (and often quite subtly different) ways.

These structures of interlacing soft tissues and crystals of different configurations act as composites which are employed within our bodies to do different things; so you could say that ‘growing’ is more than just about purely organic matter but incorporates and embraces the growing and connecting of crystalline structures in our bodies all the time. We effectively grow our own bio-material composites: we have a variety of patterns in our different tissues that make these crystals assemble in very particular structural ways to – for example – construct bones that act as structural internal support, exoskeletons, teeth, sea-shells, glass-spines, beaks, etc.

Glass Sponge Anchoring Fiber...

The mineral/ crystalline deposits that animals and plants can form vary incredibly and – to my great surprise – have even produced such strange objects such as up to 1 meter long glass rods (spicules)

Venus' Flower Basket (Euplectella aspergillum)
(capable of transmitting light similar to a glass fiber) in certain species of glass sponges

JeremyShaw1
and even metal–composite teeth in molluscs!

Growth really encompasses quite complex interactions within cellular tissues where deeply integrated biological, chemical and physical processes result in layers of both living tissue and hard mineral deposits.

Human and animal bones, animal teeth and seashells alike are chemical compositions that are produced by cell tissue acting as templates and scaffolds. These provide the structure along which biologically controlled mineral deposits are formed. As well as the effect of many different chemical compositions, the patterning of these varies greatly depending on the functions they fulfil and what stresses they are under.

One extraordinary type of bio-mineral composite can be found in the teeth of chitons, a type of mollusc that even incorporates iron; in particular an iron oxide called magnetite which together with the organic components make them three times harder than human teeth.

So what good is this to our project research? Well, we are now exploring these phenomena to design a sculptural piece that will use aspects of this bio-mineral composite growth approach in nature. Our experiments are on the way so watch this space!

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