• biomineralization;
  • freshwater bivalves;
  • mollusks;
  • proteins;
  • proteomics


The formation of the molluskan shell is regulated by an array of extracellular proteins secreted by the calcifying epithelial cells of the mantle. These proteins remain occluded within the recently formed biominerals. To date, many shell proteins have been retrieved, but only a few of them, such as nacreins, have clearly identified functions. In this particular case, by combining molecular biology and biochemical approaches, we performed the molecular characterization of a novel protein that we named Upsalin, associated with the nacreous shell of the freshwater mussel Unio pictorum. The full sequence of the upsalin transcript was obtained by RT-PCR and 5′/3′ RACE, and the expression pattern of the transcript was studied by PCR and qPCR. Upsalin is a 12 kDa protein with a basic theoretical pI. The presence of Upsalin in the shell was demonstrated by extraction of the acetic-acid-soluble nacre matrix, purification of a shell protein fraction by mono-dimensional preparative SDS-PAGE, and by submitting this fraction, after trypsic digestion, to nano-LC-MS/MS. In vitro experiments with the purified protein showed that it interferes poorly with the precipitation of calcium carbonate. Homology searches also could not affiliate Upsalin to any other protein of known function, leaving open the question of its exact role in shell formation. An antibody raised against an immunogenic peptide of Upsalin was found to be specific to this protein and was subsequently assayed for immunogold localization of the target protein in the shell, revealing the ubiquitous presence of Upsalin in the nacreous and prismatic layers. Recently, with the application of high-throughput proteomic studies to shells, the number of candidate proteins without clear functions has been increasing exponentially. The Upsalin example highlights the crucial need, for the scientific community dealing with biomineralization in general, to dedicate the coming years to designing experimental approaches, such as gene silencing, that focus on the functions of mineral-associated proteins.