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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Hierarchical super-structure identified by polarized light microscopy, electron microscopy and nanoindentation: Implications for the limits of biological control over the growth mode of abalone sea shells

Andreas S Schneider1, Birgit Heiland1, Nicolas J Peter1, Christina Guth1, Eduard Arzt12 and Ingrid M Weiss13*

Author Affiliations

1 INM - Leibniz Institute for New Materials, Campus D2 2, 66123, Saarbruecken, Germany

2 Saarland University, Saarbruecken, 66123, Germany

3 Universität Regensburg, Biochemie I, Regensburg, 93053, Germany

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BMC Biophysics 2012, 5:19  doi:10.1186/2046-1682-5-19

Published: 12 September 2012

Abstract

Background

Mollusc shells are commonly investigated using high-resolution imaging techniques based on cryo-fixation. Less detailed information is available regarding the light-optical properties. Sea shells of Haliotis pulcherina were embedded for polishing in defined orientations in order to investigate the interface between prismatic calcite and nacreous aragonite by standard materialographic methods. A polished thin section of the interface was prepared with a defined thickness of 60 μm for quantitative birefringence analysis using polarized light and LC-PolScope microscopy. Scanning electron microscopy images were obtained for comparison. In order to study structural-mechanical relationships, nanoindentation experiments were performed.

Results

Incident light microscopy revealed a super-structure in semi-transparent regions of the polished cross-section under a defined angle. This super-structure is not visible in transmitted birefringence analysis due to the blurred polarization of small nacre platelets and numerous organic interfaces. The relative orientation and homogeneity of calcite prisms was directly identified, some of them with their optical axes exactly normal to the imaging plane. Co-oriented "prism colonies" were identified by polarized light analyses. The nacreous super-structure was also visualized by secondary electron imaging under defined angles. The domains of the super-structure were interpreted to consist of crystallographically aligned platelet stacks. Nanoindentation experiments showed that mechanical properties changed with the same periodicity as the domain size.

Conclusions

In this study, we have demonstrated that insights into the growth mechanisms of nacre can be obtained by conventional light-optical methods. For example, we observed super-structures formed by co-oriented nacre platelets as previously identified using X-ray Photo-electron Emission Microscopy (X-PEEM) [Gilbert et al., Journal of the American Chemical Society 2008, 130:17519–17527]. Polarized optical microscopy revealed unprecedented super-structures in the calcitic shell part. This bears, in principle, the potential for in vivo studies, which might be useful for investigating the growth modes of nacre and other shell types.