Living cells are like little factories in the micron [µm] range (earliest microfabrication), with several specialized compartments which cover the supply of raw materials for energy and construction, coordinated fabrication, logistics, and even defense. Remarkably, the level of control can cover length scales from [Å] to meter [m], depending on the level of communication between molecules and cells. The specificity of interactions between the compartments is due to nano-scale mediators, such as highly specific enzymes that catalyze a whole range of chemical reactions, often via metal ion clusters or electron carriers in their active site. Such a broad range of phenomena has the power to inspire materials design.

From ancient cells to new materials

The oldest materials used by mankind for various purposes in daily life (construction, ornaments, decoration, coins) were natural materials such as stones, wood, bones and sea shells. Many of the unique material properties of bones, teeth, or pearls (nacre) are the direct consequence of the hierarchical construction design provided by multicellular organisms such as molluscs and vertebrates. Besides geological minerals such as diamond and biogenic stromatolithes, pearls (nacre) were among the oldest “hard” inventions of Nature. Interestingly, this ground-breaking invention occurred within a relatively short time-span (presumably less than 100 million years) about 560 million years ago as deduced from the fossil record. Learning from Nature about materials design principles requires to understand why the process of sea shell formation, and of biomineralization in general, occurred at this particular time point in the evolutionary history.

This is the challenge that the Biomineralization Department at INM pursues both conceptually and methodologically. From our previous work, a new view on evolution is also beginning to emerge. Cell biologists, working together with materials scientists, are trying to elucidate the fundamentals that rule the organisation properties of mineralized living matter. The expert knowledge, technology, and analytical tools of the INM allow us to identify and localize the functional gene products and extract the crucial information for the design of new materials. The implementation of simulations, a particular strength of the Campus Saarbrücken, contributes to understanding complex dynamic self-organization processes. The active interplay between materials science, physics, and biochemistry offers the chance to recruit biomimetic concepts for surprising new applications at all length scales