Shipworms can sink a boat.  Northern researchers explain the digestive process

Shipworms can sink a boat. Northern researchers explain the digestive process

Known as the clam that sank a thousand ships, shipworms are odd-looking — and odd-behaving — animals.

The shipworm, a worm-like clam that can grow to at least two meters in length, feeds on wood by burrowing its clam-encased head into ship hulls and other sea wood and grinding the cellulose into particles with tiny clam teeth.

But unlike termites, which have bacteria in their gut to break down the wood they eat, the bacteria that shipworms need to produce digestive enzymes are at the other end of their bodies, in the gills.

In 1848, French scientist Gerard-Paul Deshayes described extremely tiny channels running the length of the shipworm from the gills to the mouth and stomach of the clam, but could not explain what they were for.

Scientists from the Northeastern Marine Science Center and the Coastal Sustainability Institute in Nahant, Massachusetts solved the mystery using the latest technological tools that sliced ​​the shipworm into microscopic slices.

In an article published Nov. 9 in Proceedings of the Royal Society B — the Royal Society’s flagship biological research journal — research professor Dan Distel and his research associate Marvin Altamia explained how wood-dissolving enzymes make their way through the shipworm’s body found through canals that are only a fraction of the diameter of a human hair.

Dan Distel, executive director of the Ocean Genome Legacy at the Marine Science Center in Nahant, MA.

“The question has always been how these enzymes get from the gill to a place where they can actually help the animal digest wood,” says Distel, director of Northeastern’s Ocean Genome Legacy Center. “There is this physical transport from one place to another. We solved that in this work.”

His lab drew on Distel’s postdoctoral work with John Waterbury at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, where Distel used fluorescent DNA markers — then one of the latest technologies in molecular biology — to show that the bacteria that Waterbury had in the lab grown was the same organism invade shipworm cells.

It was one of the very first applications of fluorescent in situ hybridization, or FISH, says Distel.

The fact that shipworms have bacteria that help them function is of interest to scientists.

“For vertebrates like us, if you have bacteria in your cells, it’s very sick. Invertebrates can have bacterial infections in their cells that are actually beneficial,” says Distel, so-called symbionts.

For this latest round of research, his lab took tiny one to two centimeter shipworms and cut them into thin slices using a guillotine-like device called a microtome.

Shipworms are like tubes, with their heads sticking out of the wood and their gills at the other end, where they absorb oxygen from seawater.


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