"The sea urchin tooth is complicated in its design. It is one of the very few structures in nature that self-sharpen," says Gilbert, explaining that the sea urchin tooth, which is always growing, is a biomineral mosaic composed of calcite crystals with two forms -- plates and fibers -- arranged crosswise and cemented together with super-hard calcite nanocement. Between the crystals are layers of organic materials that are not as sturdy as the calcite crystals.
"The organic layers are the weak links in the chain," Gilbert explains. "There are breaking points at predetermined locations built into the teeth. It is a concept similar to perforated paper in the sense that the material breaks at these predetermined weak spots."[...]
Knowing the secret of the ever-sharp sea urchin tooth, says Gilbert, could one day have practical applications for human toolmakers. "Now that we know how it works, the knowledge could be used to develop methods to fabricate tools that could actually sharpen themselves with use," notes Gilbert. "The mechanism used by the urchin is the key. By shaping the object appropriately and using the same strategy the urchin employs, a tool with a self-sharpening edge could, in theory, be created."
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