Monday 2 July 2012

Boneworms and the Teeny Tiny Acid Bath

Image: Adrian Glover, Natural History Museum

Osedax - the murderer's best friend!

These are the bone-eating worms found at the bottom of the world's oceans. They colonise the skeletons of whales that have died and sunk to the depths.

In the strange ecosystem of the deep, these worms act like fungus, breaking down tough material that most other creatures can't.

In this case, they drill into whale bone to get to the fatty goodness whales use for buoyancy. They have no guts or mouth, instead they have a kind of root system and a great bundle of symbiotic bacteria that do all the digestive work for them.

Another thing they don't have is any means of physically drilling into bone. Something of a problem, no?

Image: Thomas Dahlgren, University of Gothenburg

Not so much. Dr Sigrid Katz from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California, San Diego has discovered their secret.

It's ACID! Even worms use this time-honoured method of dead body disposal!

Their peculiar root system is full of acid secreting enzymes that let them bore into bone without having to use a tiny hammer and chisel. Microscopic sticky-out bits increase the surface area of the roots, ensuring lots and lots of acid can get in there and do its grim work.

So strange! The more I hear of it the more I get the sense that it's the bacteria who are the real brains of the operation. The actual Boneworm sounds more and more like one of those fancy eco-homes.


TexWisGirl said...

great. now you've just got a lot of would-be killers planning... :)

Joseph JG said...

Always nice to give back to the community!

Crunchy said...

I take all my murder-concealing advice from Guy Ritchie:

"They will go through bone like butter. You need at least sixteen pigs to finish the job in one sitting, so be wary of any man who keeps a pig farm. They will go through a body that weighs 200 pounds in about eight minutes. That means that a single pig can consume two pounds of uncooked flesh every minute. Hence the expression, “as greedy as a pig”. "

Joseph JG said...

Hahah! That's just the kind of out of the box thinking you need in times of emergency. I'll remember that. Just in case.