Medical Research Council - London Institute of Medical Sciences

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Shells and Cells
08 February 2018

Shells and Cells

Glimmering on the inside of oyster and mussel shells, mother of pearl, or nacre, has a secret – it encourages human bones to grow. The Mayans used nacre for dental implants, and modern day lab tests confirm its astonishing properties – but how does it work? Here, a black and white sketch picks out the repeating patterns found under a high-powered microscope. Researchers know nacre’s layers build up over time, developing in 'controlled disorder’ – they believe this is the key. Nacre’s patterns form a natural biomaterial, acting as a precise scaffold for developing bone. On tracing paper resting over the sketch, blue dots show a grid of nano pits – an artificial design, inspired by nacre’s natural example, that could help mesenchymal stem cells to develop into new bone. It just goes to show, interesting things happen when surprising ideas meet – such as art meeting science at the place where shell meets bone.

Written by John Ankers

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