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How soft corals defy their environment

Protein favors calcite formation in aragonite sea

Calcium carbonate is a salt for all seasons. It turns up not only in marble, but also in biogenic sediments such as limestone and coral reefs – and even in pearls. The compound exists in two major crystalline forms, as calcite or aragonite. However, it is not clear what determines which variant an organism will exploit under conditions in which both forms can precipitate.

A team of researchers led by LMU geobiologist Dr. Azizur Rahman, who is also a Research Fellow of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, has now answered this question, in collaboration with colleagues based at the University of the Ryukyu Islands in Japan. Together, the scientists have shown that, in the soft coral species Lobophytum crissum, a secreted, extracellular protein known as ECMP-67 is the decisive factor that results in the precipitation of calcite, irrespective of the chemical conditions prevailing in the surrounding seawater. “Over the course of Earth’s history, and most probably depending on the relative amounts of dissolved magnesium and calcium ions, either calcite or aragonite has dominated in the world’s oceans,” says Professor Gert Wörheide, one of the authors of the new study.

Current conditions favor the formation of aragonite, and many stony corals build their skeletons exclusively from this material. However, thanks to ECMP-67, Lobophytum crassum can still produce calcite in an aragonite sea. “We have also been able to show how the extracellular protein ECMP-67 contributes to the production of calcite at the molecular level,” says Rahman. “These findings should also allow us to elucidate the crystal structure of calcite in natural environments.” The study was funded by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and the Japanese Society for the Promotion of Sciences. (suwe/PH)

Calcite formation in soft coral sclerites is determined by a single reactive extracellular protein
Azizur Rahman, Tamotsu Oomori and Gert Wörheide
Journal of Biological Chemistry 286: 31638-31649; 2 September 2011
Doi 10.1074/jbc.M109.070185
Dr. Azizur Rahman
Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Paleontology and Geobiology
LMU Munich
Phone: +49 89 / 2180 6711

Dr. Kathrin Bilgeri | EurekAlert!
Further information:

Further reports about: Azizur ECMP-67 Lobophytum cellular protein coral reef natural environment

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