The cellular mechanism used to produce the acid is nearly identical to that used in osteoclasts, the human cells that break down bone so that it can be rebuilt. Insight into how the worm dissolves bone could possibly be applied to osteoclasts, Tresguerres said. Human kidneys also contain similar proton pumps involved in processing bodily waste, he added.
Even stranger, Tresguerres said, is that the worms lack digestive systems. The study suggests the acid the worms produce frees collagen and other proteins from the whale bones, but how they are broken down and absorbed by the worms is unclear. Tresguerres, along with co-authors Sigrid Katz and Greg Rouse, think that symbiotic bacteria help the animals digest the food.
The worms were first discovered by Rouse and colleagues in 2002 off the California coast in an underwater valley called the Monterey Submarine Canyon.
There are multiple species of these zombie worms, which belong to the Osedax genus. The worms' closest relatives, which also lack guts and mouths, inhabit deep-sea hydrothermal vents and rely on a different set of bacteria to allow them to survive in these hot and acidic conditions.