How The "Iron Superpowers" Of A Bioluminescent Worm Might Help Us Tackle Anemia

The parchment tubeworm can emit blue light for unusually long periods of time, all thanks to its 'iron superpowers'. David Liittschwager/Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego

Rachel Baxter 15 Dec 2017, 12:22

About 2 billion people – 30 percent of the world’s entire population – suffer from iron-deficiency anemia. According to the World Health Organization, “iron deficiency affects more people than any other condition, constituting a public health condition of epidemic proportions.” But now, it appears that a kind of bioluminescent marine worm might help us combat this problem.

Ferritin is a kind of protein that stores and controls the release of iron in the body. A lack of ferritin in the blood can indicate iron deficiency, so it's often used as a diagnostic test for iron-deficiency anemia.

Amazingly, the worm, known as the parchment tubeworm, boasts ferritin that has an eight times faster catalytic performance – the speed at which the enzyme ferroxidase oxidizes iron – than human ferritin, the fastest ever described in nature. The findings are published in the Biochemical Journal.

"We were surprised to discover that even though the tubeworm ferritin is very similar to human ferritin, it outperforms the human variant, by a lot," said Scripps research scientist Dimitri Deheyn, the lead investigator on the study, in a statement. "There are major biotechnological research implications to this finding, in particular for the many labs that develop ferritin applications."

Parchment tubeworms are found on muddy seafloors, close to the shore. They live inside tubes that they make themselves from mud. The worms used in this particular study are found throughout the muddy seafloors of Southern California and San Diego, but other types of tubeworm can be found in the waters of temperate seas worldwide.

The parchment worm has mainly been of scientific interest due to its impressive bioluminescence – the ability to produce its own light. It can glow a brilliant blue for hours, and sometimes even days, an impressive feat in the animal kingdom. Previous research suggests that it's the fast-acting ferritin in the worm's mucus that allows it to glow for such long periods of time.

"The link to bioluminescence is incredibly important, and we're just beginning to understand how ferritin influences bioluminescence and why ferritin works so much faster in this organism," said study co-author Evelien De Meulenaere.

According to the researchers, ferritin has a soccer ball-like shape. It has openings in it that take in iron, allowing it to be stored within the protein. The ferritin can then release the iron when it is required by the body. The porous structure of ferritin gives it a range of applications, from removing contaminants from water to targeted release of medication.

What’s more, finding out more about how the parchment tubeworm's ferritin works could help to improve iron regulation in the blood of people. Iron deficiencies are currently treated with iron supplements and diet changes, but perhaps, one day, the tubeworms "iron superpowers" will inspire a more effective approach. 


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