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Appl Microbiol Biotechnol. 2009 Jun;83(3):397-413. doi: 10.1007/s00253-009-2014-8. Epub 2009 May 9.

Sponge spicules as blueprints for the biofabrication of inorganic-organic composites and biomaterials.

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Department for Applied Molecular Biology, Institute for Physiological Chemistry, Johannes Gutenberg University, Duesbergweg 6, 55099 Mainz, Germany.


While most forms of multicellular life have developed a calcium-based skeleton, a few specialized organisms complement their body plan with silica. However, of all recent animals, only sponges (phylum Porifera) are able to polymerize silica enzymatically mediated in order to generate massive siliceous skeletal elements (spicules) during a unique reaction, at ambient temperature and pressure. During this biomineralization process (i.e., biosilicification) hydrated, amorphous silica is deposited within highly specialized sponge cells, ultimately resulting in structures that range in size from micrometers to meters. Spicules lend structural stability to the sponge body, deter predators, and transmit light similar to optic fibers. This peculiar phenomenon has been comprehensively studied in recent years and in several approaches, the molecular background was explored to create tools that might be employed for novel bioinspired biotechnological and biomedical applications. Thus, it was discovered that spiculogenesis is mediated by the enzyme silicatein and starts intracellularly. The resulting silica nanoparticles fuse and subsequently form concentric lamellar layers around a central protein filament, consisting of silicatein and the scaffold protein silintaphin-1. Once the growing spicule is extruded into the extracellular space, it obtains final size and shape. Again, this process is mediated by silicatein and silintaphin-1, in combination with other molecules such as galectin and collagen. The molecular toolbox generated so far allows the fabrication of novel micro- and nanostructured composites, contributing to the economical and sustainable synthesis of biomaterials with unique characteristics. In this context, first bioinspired approaches implement recombinant silicatein and silintaphin-1 for applications in the field of biomedicine (biosilica-mediated regeneration of tooth and bone defects) or micro-optics (in vitro synthesis of light waveguides) with promising results.

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