Known to scientists as nacre, mother of pearl is the shiny coating found inside some mollusk shells and around pearls. Shellfish, such as oysters, produce it to help defend their ultra-soft tissues against parasites and debris. The nacre basically entombs the invaders in a process called encystation that continues throughout the marine dweller's life.
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If a larger object becomes wedged near the shell, blister pearls -- those attached to the interior -- can form. Most are more familiar with "free pearls," or those that form within the mollusk's soft tissues. Their creation, and that of nacre, is deceptively complex.
"Biological materials are built from limited components, but their mechanical performances such as strength and toughness are far beyond their artificial counterparts," lead author Li-Bo Mao of the University of Sciences and Technology of China and his team wrote.
Natural nacre consists of aragonite plates that grow into one another in a brick-and-mortar fashion through mineralization. Aragonite is a mineral made up of calcium carbonite. The "mortar" consists of a fibrous silk gel.
Mao and his colleagues designed a similar matrix with a system that allowed for gradual release of calcium carbonate. The slow release of the mineral offers a more uniform and natural formation of nacre than what exists in the current popular synthetic process, according to the scientists.
Here's how they did it: