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A Snail's Supershell Could Inspire High-Tech Body Armor

From the depths of a deep-sea hot-water vent in the Indian Ocean comes Crysomallon squamiferum, a creature unlike anything ever seen before. Discovered over 10 years ago, it looks like a rather humble snail (a gastropod mollusk actually, called a "scaly-foot" gastropod), but it possesses a shell that's superstrong.

Crysomallon squamiferum is a creature with a superstrong shell.

A close-up view of Crysomallon squamiferum (Dr. Anders Waren, Swedish Museum of Natural History) hide caption

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Nature has provided the gastropod with three layers of protection: an organic layer sandwiched between two mineral layers. The shell's outer coating of iron sulfide excites researchers at MIT, who say it's unique to this creature and could lead to innovations in body armor, auto paint and football helmets.

According to materials scientist Christine Ortiz, the mollusk builds its shell with chemicals that come out of deep-sea vents. It lives amid a bevy of potential predators, including cone snails that normally puncture the shells of their prey. But Ortiz says this critter's shell is remarkably good at resisting penetration without cracking or fracturing.

The gastropod and its supershell are described in the Jan. 18 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Christopher Joyce is a correspondent on NPR's science desk.

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