Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Heavy Metals Give Ants a Powerful Bite | Smart News - Smithsonian Magazine

Last updated Monday, September 13, 2021 13:28 ET , Source: NewsService

Leafcutter ants use their powerful jaws to slice vegetation, scorpions rely on sharp stingers to puncture a predator’s thick skin, and spiders need strong fangs to devour their meals. New research reveals the secret behind some tiny creatures’ super-durable appendages: heavy metal atoms.

University of Oregon physicist Robert Schofield and his colleagues examined ant teeth, spider fangs, scorpion stingers, marine worm jaws, and other arthropod appendages under a special microscope, reports Rahul Rao for Popular Science. Many of these animals are using their pinchers, teeth or stingers in life-or-death situations, when durability and strength are paramount. When scientists looked at the jaws of a leafcutter ant species called Atta cephalotes, they could see a thin, even disbursement of heavy metal atoms like zinc and copper mixed with natural proteins.

Fortifying certain body parts with these metals provides “the kinds of properties that you want in a knife or needle,” says Schofield to Jake Buehler for Science News.

Scientists already knew that some tiny creatures had certain body parts infused with zinc, copper, and manganese, but it wasn’t clear how the metals related to other durable proteins, reports Carrie Arnold for National Geographic. In the new study, published this month in Scientific Reports, the team looked at proteins and metals at a molecular level and found metal atoms woven into the proteins to create a super-strong composite material.

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