• biomineralization;
  • calcium-binding protein;
  • glycoprotein;
  • matrix macromolecules;
  • mollusc shell nacre


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Results
  4. Discussion
  5. Experimental procedures
  6. Acknowledgements
  7. References

Among molluscs, the shell biomineralization process is controlled by a set of extracellular macromolecular components secreted by the calcifying mantle. In spite of several studies, these components are mainly known in bivalves from only few members of pteriomorph groups. In the present case, we investigated the biochemical properties of the aragonitic shell of the freshwater bivalve Unio pictorum (Paleoheterodonta, Unionoida). Analysis of the amino acid composition reveals a high amount of glycine, aspartate and alanine in the acid-soluble extract, whereas the acid-insoluble one is rich in alanine and glycine. Monosaccharidic analysis indicates that the insoluble matrix comprises a high amount of glucosamine. Furthermore, a high ratio of the carbohydrates of the soluble matrix is sulfated. Electrophoretic analysis of the acid-soluble matrix revealed discrete bands. Stains-All, Alcian Blue, periodic acid/Schiff and autoradiography with 45Ca after electrophoretic separation revealed three major polyanionic calcium-binding glycoproteins, which exhibit an apparent molecular mass of 95, 50 and 29 kDa, respectively. Two-dimensional gel electrophoresis shows that these bands, provisionally named P95, P50 and P29, are composed of numerous isoforms, the majority of which have acidic isoelectric points. Chemical deglycosylation of the matrix with trifluoromethanesulfonic acid induces a drastic shift of both the apparent molecular mass and the isoelectric point of these matrix components. This treatment induces also a modification of the shape of CaCO3 crystals grown in vitro and a loss of the calcium-binding ability of two of the main matrix proteins (P95 and P50). Our findings strongly suggest that post-translational modifications display important functions in mollusc shell calcification.


acid-insoluble matrix


acid-soluble matrix


bicinchoninic acid


Coomassie Brilliant Blue


1,9-dimethylmethylene blue


isoelectric focusing


immobilized pH gradient


periodic acid/Schiff


trifluoromethanesulfonic acid.

Among molluscs, the shell biomineralization is a matrix-mediated process, performed extracellularly. This matrix is a complex mixture of proteins, glycoproteins, polysaccharides and lipids, which are secreted by the mantle calcifying epithelium, together with the mineral precursors [1]. All these components are released in the extrapallial space, where they are supposed to self-assemble in an orderly manner. The matrix may have several functions: it organizes spatially a 3D framework, concentrates locally mineral ions above the supersaturation threshold, catalyzes mineral precipitation, nucleates crystals, determines the polymorph at crystal lattice scale, controls the crystals shape by stereo-specific adsorptions and, finally, inhibits crystal growth [2]. In addition, the matrix is suspected to be involved in cell signalling with the calcifying epithelium [3].

During the last decade, several macromolecules have been characterized from the molluscan shells [4]. One drawback of these previous studies on matrix is that they focused mainly on protein components. To date, there are limited data available dealing with other macromolecular components (i.e. sugars and lipids) [5,6]. Another point worthy of note is the scarcity of tackled biological models. For example, in bivalves, most of the findings were obtained from seven genera only, all belonging to the pteriomorph subclass. In particular, due to economical purposes, the pearl oyster Pinctada sp. constitutes the prominent model for studying the formation of mother-of-pearl.

For many reasons, paleoheterodont bivalves represent fascinating models. This small subclass, which comprises unionoida and trigonioida, is traditionally positioned between pteriomorphs and the ‘modern’ heterodont bivalves [7]. Most of them are freshwater species, which are observed worldwide. Until now, they have been often used in environmental pollution studies, notably as metal accumulation indicators [8,9]. If microsocopic observations have been performed describing the structure of the shell of some unionoida bivalves [10,11], very little is known about the organic components of the shell, especially at the molecular level [8,12–14].

Like nacro-prismatic pteriomorph bivalves (including Mytiloida and Pterioida), paleoheterodont bivalves exhibit a rather ‘primitive’ shell texture, comprising an outer prismatic shell layer (not always present among some species) and an inner one made of the typical brick-wall nacre. Unlike most pteriomorphs (but like some gastropods and cephalopods), the prismatic shell layer of paleoheterodonts is entirely aragonitic [15]. Moreover, the shell hinge of paleoheterodonts is rather ‘modern’ and similar to that of heterodont bivalves. Thus, paleoheterodont bivalves represent a case of complex ‘mosaic’ evolution because they exhibit both primitive and derived characters [7].

One key question is whether the macromolecules that constitute the shell organic matrix are similar to those found in the aragonitic layers of pteriomorph bivalves. In this paper, we present the first biochemical characterization of the shell matrix of the freshwater unionoida bivalve Unio pictorum. We focus our attention on the nacreous layer, notably on its saccharidic composition, and underline the importance of the role of glycosyl moiety in the nacre mineralization process.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Results
  4. Discussion
  5. Experimental procedures
  6. Acknowledgements
  7. References

Analysis of shell matrices on SDS/PAGE

As shown in Fig. 1A–C, the shell of U. pictorum is composed of two mineralized layers: a thin external prismatic layer (Fig. 1B), representing less than 10% of the total shell thickness, and a thick internal nacreous layer made of flat tablets (Fig. 1C). The subsequent work was performed on the nacre layer.


Figure 1.  Scanning electron microscopy micrographs showing the microstructure of the shell of U. pictorum. (A) View of the complete shell broken in the transversal plane. P, prisms; N, nacre. (B) Superior view of the prismatic layer observed at the edge of the shell. The prismatic layer of U. pictorum is composed of packed polygonal crystallites of aragonite, the prisms, separated by an organic periprismatic sheath. (C) View of the fresh nacreous layer broken in the transversal plane. Nacre is made of superimposed aragonitic flat tablets of above 0.5 µm in thickness.

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After decalcification, the amounts of insoluble and soluble matrices were quantified: the acetic acid-soluble matrix (ASM) represents 0.04% w/w, and the acetic acid-insoluble matrix (AIM), 0.5% w/w of the shell powder. These results are consistent with previous findings on the nacreous layer of Pinna nobilis[16]. AIM is insoluble in most of the chaotropic agents. For subsequent electrophoretic analyses, we could only partly dissolve it in 8 m urea.

Mono-dimensional electrophoresis of the ASM and of the urea-soluble AIM shows few discrete prominent bands, in addition to a diffuse pattern made of nondiscrete components (Fig. 2A). The ASM pattern exhibits three main bands at 95, 50 and 29 kDa with both silver nitrate and Coomassie Brilliant Blue (CBB). The AIM appears predominantly as a smear, with few discrete thin bands, around 90 kDa, which are revealed only with silver nitrate staining, and around 35 kDa, the latter being stained only with CBB.


Figure 2.  Macromolecular and functional composition of the organic matrix of U. pictorum. (A) Electrophoretic analysis of organic fractions obtained by decalcification of U. pictorum nacreous layers with 5% acetic acid. 12% SDS/PAGE of the ASM and the AIM. The AIM was suspended in 8 m urea (60 °C, 2 h) before electrophoresis. MM, molecular mass markers. (B) Infrared spectra of the ASM and the AIM.

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Fourier transform IR analysis of the ASM and AIM

The IR absorption spectra of the ASM and of the AIM are shown in Fig. 2B. In both extracts, the thick band around 3270 cm−1 is attributed to the amide A group (N-H bound) and two strong IR bands near 1650 and 1540 cm−1 were attributed to the amide I (C-O bound) and the amide II (C-N bound) groups, respectively. This is in agreement with the findings of Marxen and Becker [5] for the organic matrix of Biomphalaria shell. Interestingly, a strong carboxylate absorption band at 1420 cm−1 and an important carbohydrate band at 1060 cm−1 are observed with the ASM extract. The distinct band at 1200–1250 cm−1 is mainly due to the sulfate groups, strongly suggesting that polysaccharides are sulfated [17].

Amino acid composition of the ASM and AIM

The total amounts of amino acids represent 67 and 52% w/w of ASM and AIM, respectively. Table 1A shows the composition in amino acids (in mol%) of the soluble and the insoluble matrices. Due to the conversion of amidated amino acids (Asn, Gln) during hydrolysis, one should note that the Asx and Glx residues represent Asn + Asp and Gln + Glu, respectively. In the ASM extract, Gly, Asx and Ala represent prominent amino acids, followed by Glx, Ser and Pro. The three first constitute 40% of the total amino acid composition, and the eight amino acids together (because Asx and Glx represent two amino acids, respectively), almost two-thirds of that composition. The ASM matrix does not seem particularly acidic as regard to Asp and Glu percentage (22%). On the other hand, the composition of the AIM is dominated by Ala and Gly residues, which, together, represent 49% of the total composition.

Table 1.    Elemental composition of the organic matrices of U. pictorum. (A) Amino acid composition of the ASM and of the AIM. Data are presented as molar percentage of total amino acid for each extracts. (B) Composition in neutral polysaccharides of the ASM and the AIM hydrolysed with 2 M trifluoroacetic acid at 110 °C (4 h). We observed that after hydrolysis of AIM, some unhydrolyzed compounds were still present at the bottom of the vessel. Composition in sialic acid was measured after a moderate hydrolysis with 0.016 M acetic acid at 80 °C (3 h). The quantity of sulfated sugars was determined spectrophotometrically with DMB. Data are presented in ng·µg−1 of total matrix and in percentage of total identified carbohydrate compounds. ND, not detected. TR, trace.
Unio pictorumASMAIM
(A) Amino acid composition (% of the total amino acid)
(B) Composition in neutral polysaccharides [ng·µg−1 of matrix (% of the total)]
 Fucose0.7 (2)0.3 (1)
 Galactose2.4 (6)2.8 (10)
 Glucose9.3 (23)5.2 (18)
 Mannose1.1 (3)0.4 (1)
 Xylose0.3 (1)0.1 (0.4)
 Galactosamine7.5 (17)2.3 (8)
 Glucosamine9.3 (23)16.6 (59)
 Galacturonic acidNDND
 Glucuronic acidNDND
 Sulfated sugars9.6 (24)0.6 (2)
 Total40.2 (100)28.3 (100)

Monosaccharide composition of the ASM and AIM

The total amounts of neutral and amino sugars obtained after trifluoroacetic acid hydrolysis represent, in each matrix, 3.1 and 2.8% w/w of ASM and AIM, respectively (Table 1B). However, in the case of the AIM, the standard sugar extraction procedure that we used probably does not release the totality of the monosaccharides. Even after the standard hydrolysis with 2 m trifluoroacetic acid, we observed an insoluble residue that may still contain a high amount of carbohydrates. Thus, it is likely that the percentages are underestimated. Furthermore, a few unidentified peaks were detected, but these could not be attributed to standard monosaccharides. For both extracts, four neutral monosaccharides constitute the main part of the sugar moieties: glucosamine and glucose, then galactosamine and galactose. The sum of these four sugars represents 93% and 97% of the total amount of neutral and amino sugars investigated for ASM and AIM, respectively. AIM contains two-fold more glucosamine than ASM (60% and 30%, respectively). The two extracts contain only traces of fucose, mannose and xylose. Rhamnose, arabinose, galacturonic and glucuronic acids were not detected in both extracts. Sialic acids were observed to be present in very small amounts in ASM and AIM. Neu5Ac was detected as traces, whereas Neu5Gc was deficient in both matrices.

The sulfated sugar content of ASM and AIM was measured by spectrophotometry. High amounts of sulfated sugars were quantified in the ASM, representing 24% of the total sugar content. This corroborates previous findings on molluscan shell soluble matrices [5,18].

ASM polysaccharide staining and ASM calcium-binding ability on gels

Figure 3 shows the different staining of the ASM on gel, in addition to the autoradiography after 45Ca incubation. The three major proteins, provisionally called P95, P50 and P29, stain with the nonspecific staining, silver nitrate and CBB. In addition, they stain with periodic acid/Schiff (PAS), Alcian Blue and Stains-All (Sigma-Aldrich, St. Louis, MO, USA) dyes. The PAS reagent reveals vicinal diol groups on peripheral sugar and sialic acids with a specific red/purple colour. Furthermore, the Alcian Blue staining procedure, which was used in this study at pH 1, is characteristic of the very acidic sulfated sugars [19]. The results show that P95, P50 and P29 are glycosylated and that they bear sulfate groups (Fig. 3). The specific metachromatic blue colour observed for these three bands with the carbocyanine dye is characteristic of potential calcium-binding proteins [20]. The putative calcium-binding ability of the three main proteins was confirmed by the 45Ca overlay test. In comparison to the calcium-binding activity of the calmodulin (positive control, not shown), the signal obtained from the three glycoproteins is relatively weak under denaturing conditions, but consistently higher than the background signal.


Figure 3.  Analysis of U. pictorum ASM by gel electrophoresis. (A) One-dimensional 12% polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis of ASM, under denaturing condition, after staining with silver nitrate, CBB, PAS, Alcian Blue, Stains-All and after autoradiography with 45Ca. Similar amounts of shell matrix were analyzed (40 µg·lane−1). MM, molecular mass markers.

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In vitro inhibition of calcium carbonate precipitation

Figure 4 shows the result of the inhibition test. In the very initial part of the reaction, when CaCl2 is added to the NaHCO3 solution, the pH decreases instantaneously from 8.4/8.5 to 7.7 before rising again to 7.9/8 in approximately 30 s. In the blank experiment (no added matrix) the pH decreases without any time lag (approximately 60 s), corresponding to the rapid precipitation of calcium carbonate (Fig. 4). When ASM was present in the solution, we observed a delay of CaCO3 precipitation. The effect of the matrix was efficient from 10 µg and the delay observed was dose-dependent when 25 or 50 µg of ASM were added. Above 50 µg, the inhibition was total. We used poly l-aspartic acid (10 µg) as a positive control of inhibition. The result obtained with the matrix of the U. pictorum shell is consistent with that obtained from bivalve nacre extracts [21].


Figure 4. In vitro inhibition of precipitation of CaCO3 by ASM. The pH of the solution was recorded as a function of time. The graph shows that ASM starts to be effective at 10 µg. The delay observed is dose-dependent.

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ASM deglycosylation studies

We performed a chemical deglycosylation rather than an enzymatic one. In our hands, the enzymatic deglycosylation was not efficient (data not shown). We assumed that this was due to the lack of accessibility of enzymatic cleavage sites. As recommended by Edge et al. [22], the chemical deglycosylation was performed at 0 °C, under a nitrogen atmosphere, to preclude peptide bond hydrolysis but allow the removal of most of the sugars. The trifluoromethanesulfonic acid (TFMS) deglycosylation produced a drastic effect on the ASM (Fig. 5). This is particularly visible when the samples were tested on gel (lanes 2–3). We observed a shift of the three prominent proteins, towards a lower molecular mass: deglycosylated P95 (deg-P95) migrates at 70 kDa, deglycosylated P50 (deg-P50) at 38 kDa, and deglycosylated P29 (deg-P29) at 23 kDa. This corresponds to a 32%, 24% and 24% loss of apparent molecular mass, respectively. We assume that these shifts result from optimal sugar removal, and not peptide bond hydrolysis, because our positive control with fetuin migrates as a discrete band at the expected molecular mass. The shifts suggest that the carbohydrate content of the ASM is higher than that measured by the monosaccharide analysis. The reason of this discrepancy is not yet explained, but might be related to the ability of the standard trifluoroacetic acid hydrolysis to release monosaccharides, without damaging them.


Figure 5.  Chemical deglycosylation study of U. pictorum ASM with TFMS at 0 °C. Analysis of ASM and fetuin deglycosylation on a CBB-stained 12% acrylamide gel. Protein concentrations were determined with the BCA method, in order to adjust the concentration and to load the same amount of proteins in treated and nontreated samples with TFMS; 40 µg of ASM or deg-ASM proteins were loaded. We estimate that 25–30% by weight of U. pictorum ASM is composed of carbohydrates which are removed with TFMS. Lane 1, molecular mass markers; lane 2, nontreated ASM; lane 3, deg-ASM; lane 4, nontreated fetuin (5 µg); lane 5, deg-fetuin (5 µg).

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Figure 6 shows the different profiles observed for the ASM before and after deglycosylation. For accurate comparison, we took care to load the gel lanes with the same amounts of ASM. With the silver stained gel (Fig. 6A, left), we observed an attenuation of the staining after ASM deglycosylation. With PAS staining, the decrease of the signal is almost complete (Fig. 6A, center). The faint PAS-positive staining of the three major deglycosylated bands may be explained by the fact that monosaccharides, which are directly bound to the peptide core (N-acetylglucosamine, N-acetylgalactosamine on threonine and arginine), are not cleaved by TFMS [23]. Interestingly, we also observed a complete loss of staining with Alcian Blue (Fig. 6A, right), as well as a colour change with the Stains-All dye (Fig. 6B, left). In particular, the deg-P95 and the deg-P50 proteins stained red after deglycosylation, whereas the deg-P29 is still stained blue. Furthermore, the overlay test with 45Ca (Fig. 6B, right) shows a dramatic loss of signal for deg-P95 and deg-P50, but a strong signal at low molecular mass. Taken together, these results demonstrate that the calcium-binding ability is carried out by the glycosyl moieties, for P95 and P50, and by the peptide core, in the case of P29.


Figure 6.  Characterization of carbohydrate residues by chemical deglycosylation of U. pictorum ASM followed by staining with polyanionic dyes and calcium-binding test on SDS/PAGE. (A) 10% SDS/PAGE stained with silver nitrate, PAS and Alcian Blue. MM, molecular mass markers. Lane 1, ASM; lane 2, deg-ASM. (B) 12% SDS/PAGE gels: staining with Stains-All (right) and autoradiography with 45Ca (left). CaM, calmodulin (5 µg); Lane 1, ASM; lane 2, deg-ASM. Same amounts of matrix (40 µg) were loaded in each well.

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ASM analysis on 2D gel electrophoresis

Two-dimensional gel electrophoresis analysis of the ASM, before and after deglycosylation, revealed discrete spots in both extracts (Fig. 7). In the native ASM (Fig. 7A), the three prominent bands are composed of numerous isoforms exhibiting various isoelectric points (pI). P95 comprises 6–7 isoforms, which are focused at acidic pI values in the range 3.5–4.5. On the other hand, P50 appears to be composed of two distinct proteins of neighbouring molecular mass, which migrate in two clusters, one in the pI range 5–6, and the other one in the pI range 6–7. P29 is not homogeneous, but is composed of a single acidic diffuse spot (with a pI around 5) and a succession of spots, representing four evenly spaced isoforms in the pI range 6.5–7.5.


Figure 7.  Two-dimensional electrophoresis analysis of the effects of the TFMS deglycosylation on U. pictorum ASM components (CBB staining). (A) Native ASM. (B) Deg-ASM. On the left, mono-dimensional gels with molecular markers (MM) and native (A, lane ASM) or deglycosylated ASM (B, lane D-ASM), showing the correspondence between the protein bands and the spots. Forty micrograms of matrices were loaded on gels. Approximate pI values are indicated at the top of the 2D gels.

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The deglycosylation has a remarkable effect on the respective positions of the different spots in both dimensions (Fig. 7B): in particular, deg-P95 is localized as a single spot around pI 7, which means a pI shift of more than three pH units. This result suggests that P95 spots observed are made with the same amino acid core bearing various glycosylation patterns. The pI value of deg-P50 gains two pH units in comparison to P50, and deg-P50 migrates as one cluster of two bands of neighbouring molecular mass. For the two populations of spots that constitute the deg-P29, a shift towards basic pI can be observed, although this is far less apparent than for P95 and P50. Our data demonstrate that the sugar moieties have an important effect on the electrophoretic behaviour of the ASM. Clearly, the sugar moieties ‘acidify’ the proteinaceous components of the ASM.

Growth of calcite crystals in the presence of native and chemically deglycosylated ASM

The results of the crystal growth experiment are shown in Fig. 8. When no matrix is added to the solution, calcium carbonate crystals, obtained de novo by the slow diffusion method, form rhombohedra, typical of calcite (Fig. 8A). The crystals present smooth surfaces and sharp edges. The length of their edge is approximately 50 µm. The effect of ASM starts to become visible at concentrations above 0.5–1 µg·mL−1, where some polycrystalline aggregates are formed. They exhibit microsteps and the development of new faces (Fig. 8B). At higher concentrations (5 µg·mL−1, Fig. 8C), the size of the crystals produced increases (typically 70–100 µm) and they are all polycrystalline aggregates. At 20 µg·mL−1, the size of the polycrystalline aggregates decreases (around 20 µm, Fig. 8D), which suggests that the ASM starts to inhibit crystal growth.


Figure 8.  Scanning electron micrographs of synthetic calcite crystals grown in vitro with different concentrations of native ASM and deg-ASM. Effects of matrices were tested at concentrations in the range 0.1–20 µg·mL−1 CaCl2. (A) Negative control without matrix. (B) ASM at 1 µg·mL−1. (C) ASM at 5 µg·mL−1. (D) ASM at 20 µg·mL−1. (E) Deg-ASM at 1 µg·mL−1. (F) Deg-ASM at 5 µg·mL−1. (G) Deg-ASM at 20 µg·mL−1. (H) Magnification of the square shown in (G). Black arrows indicate truncated corners.

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The results obtained from the deglycosylated ASM (deg-ASM) are shown in Fig. 8E–H. We observed important differences between the two extracts: at low concentrations of deg-ASM (1 µg·mL−1, Fig. 8E), crystals are slightly modified. Higher concentrations are required before observing a significant effect (5 µg·mL−1, Fig. 8F). At high concentrations (20 µg·mL−1, Fig. 8G,H) and contrary to the native ASM, no inhibiting effect is observed. This suggests that the sugar moieties are involved in the inhibition process. One specific effect observed with deg-ASM is the formation of truncated corners (Fig. 8F–H) without any microstep. In the present case, these patterns are never observed with undeglycosylated ASM.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Results
  4. Discussion
  5. Experimental procedures
  6. Acknowledgements
  7. References

In the present paper, we have characterized biochemically the calcifying matrix associated with the nacreous shell layer of the paleoheterodont freshwater bivalve U. pictorum. As regards the decalcification method used, the matrix comprises two fractions, one acetic acid-soluble and the other, acetic acid-insoluble. The amino acid compositions of both fractions are typical of soluble and insoluble nacre fractions, respectively. The ASM is fairly acidic. This finding corroborates previous data obtained from the ASM extracted from nacre [24]. The amounts of Asx and Glx residues are significantly lower than in calcitic microstructures [25,26]. The AIM exhibits the signature of hydrophobic proteins (enrichment in Gly and Ala), which belong to the ‘silk fibroin-like’ group [27,28]. Interestingly, the amino acid composition of the AIM of U. pictorum resembles that reported by Weiner et al. [29] on Neotrigonia margaritacea, another paleoheterodont bivalve. In particular, the same decreasing order of major amino acids is observed: Gly, Ala, Ser and Asx. Similar results were obtained with the insoluble nacreous matrices of the edible mussel, Mytilus edulis, of the cephalopod, Nautilus pompilius[30], and of the freshwater mussel, Anodonta cygnea[8], this latter being closely related to U. pictorum.

However, the distinction between a soluble and insoluble matrix is purely technical. Recent findings on nacre from pteriomorph bivalves have suggested that the so-called ‘insoluble’ matrix may be secreted as an aqueous gel [1], in which each aragonitic nacre tablet is crystallized from transient amorphous calcium carbonate [31], growing centrifugally from a nucleation centre, as previously suggested by Nakahara [32]. This gel also comprises acidic glycoproteins, which may surround the growing nacre tablets or be occluded within them [33]. The complex formed by the gel and the acidic glycoproteins is itself embedded between chitin layers, which display a framework function [34]. We reasonably assume that this model can be extrapolated to paleoheterodont bivalves, such as U. pictorum. Indeed, pteriomorph and paleoheterodont nacres exhibit a similar ‘brick wall’ structure in cross-section [11,35]. Furthermore, they present similarities at the crystallographic level [36]. Finally, our biochemical data corroborate those obtained from pteriomorph matrices. First, even by considering that all Asx and Glx residues are in their acidic form, both nacre ASMs exhibit much lower acidic amino acid compositions (Asx + Glx < 22%) than calcite-associated matrices [8,25–27,29,37]. Second, both exhibit a lower capacity than calcite-associated matrices to inhibit calcium carbonate precipitation in the pH-metric and CaCO3 precipitation interference tests [26,38,39]. Third, as regards the saccharidic composition of the shell matrices of U. pictorum, high amounts of glucosamine are detected in both extracts. With our analytical technique involving trifluoroacetic acid hydrolysis, we cannot distinguish glucosamine from its N-acetylated form, which is the monomer of chitin. Chitin has been detected in the insoluble shell matrices of diverse groups of molluscs, such as pteriomorph bivalves [14,27,40,41], and is proposed to be involved in the 3D structuration of the matrix [34]. In our analyses, glucosamine is two-fold more concentrated in the AIM than in the ASM. This strongly suggests that a large amount of the detected glucosamine originates from the partial hydrolysis of chitin by trifluoroacetic acid.

In the present paper, we have unequivocally demonstrated that the major proteins of the ASM (P95, P50 and P29) are heavily glycosylated. The sugar moiety is partly composed of acidic sugars, in particular sulfated ones, which are responsible for the lowering of the pI of ASM components. Similarly, the nacre of the unionoida, Lamellidans marginalis, also exhibits a weakly acidic amino acid composition, a high amount of polysaccharide and the presence of sulfated groups [12]. Previous studies have reported the occurrence of sulfated sugars in the mollusc matrix [41,42]. More recently, Marxen and Becker [5] observed that sulfate groups are quantitatively important in the ASM, but depleted in the AIM of the shell of the freshwater gastropod, Biomphalaria glabrata. We also demonstrated that the polysaccharide moiety shows a calcium-binding activity, which is dramatically altered after deglycosylation. There is a striking example among vertebrates where the acidic saccharidic moiety of a calcified tissue-associated glycoprotein exhibits a calcium-binding capacity [43]. Calcium-binding activity due to saccharides is also known in the echinoderm skeletal matrix [44], and has been suspected among mollusc shell components [45]. Although we did not measure the affinity of the matrix for calcium, we suspect that it is low, a fact in agreement with the function of the matrix, which temporarily sequesters calcium ions and releases them where required [46]. Furthermore, we demonstrated that the saccharidic moiety of the shell glycoproteins modulates the shape of calcite crystals grown in vitro. In particular, the deglycosylation of the ASM leads to the formation of truncated corners without any microsteps. Interestingly, similar patterns were observed with an unglycosylated matrix extract of the pteriomorph mollusc, Atrina rigida[47], and similar microsteps patterns were observed with glycosylated proteins of different sources [48,49].

One central finding of our study is that the saccharidic moieties of the shell matrix play a key role, although this role is not yet understood. Most of the studies performed on molluscs to date have focused on the matrix proteinaceous components, and only a few reports deal with the characterization of carbohydrates, in particular studies by Simkiss [41], Crenshaw [18], Marxen & Becker [5] and Marxen et al. [50]. The first sequence of an oligosaccharide covalently N-linked to the dermatopontin of the snail Biomphalaria glabrata was obtained only recently [51]. Various functions have been proposed for ASM polysaccharides in CaCO3 mineralization. Acidic sugars, especially sulfated ones, may concentrate calcium ions at the vicinity of the acidic proteins, inducing crystal nucleation [52,53]. This was observed histochemically by Crenshaw and Ristedt [42], and confirmed recently by Nudelman et al. [33]. Polysaccharides may also play a role in mineral surface recognition [54] and in polymorph selection [55]. They also may be involved in water or ion entrapment within the hydrogel, and they may modify its viscosity at the nanoscale, as mucins and carrageenans can do [21,56]. Lastly, matrix polysaccharides may display an active role in mediating mantle cell–matrix interaction and cell signalling [57]. Further experiments, including primary structure determination and in situ localization, are essential for improving our understanding of the function of these matrix glycoproteins in biomineralization.

Experimental procedures

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Results
  4. Discussion
  5. Experimental procedures
  6. Acknowledgements
  7. References

Shell material

Fresh shells, 10–16 mm in length, of the freshwater bivalve U. pictorum were collected in the canal of Burgundy (Dijon, France). Like most, if not all, unionoida bivalves, U. pictorum exhibits a bilayered shell, made of a thin prismatic outer and a thick nacreous layer. The whole shell is aragonitic. For direct microscopic observations, freshly fragmented cleaned shells were carbon-sputtered and directly observed in the secondary electron mode with a JEOL 6400 scanning electron microscope (JEOL Europe SAS, Croissy sur Seine, France) at the Laboratory of ‘Réactivités des Solides’, Dijon.

Shell preparation and matrix extraction

The whole shells were immersed in 1% NaOCl for 24 h to remove the periostracum and superficial contaminants, followed by thorough rinsing with water. This treatment also disaggregates the outer thin prismatic layer. The shells were mechanically abraded until obtaining a pure nacre layer. They were then cleaned in water and crushed. The entire extraction procedure was performed at 4 °C in 5% acetic acid, as previously described [21,26], and we obtained an ASM and AIM. Both were freeze-dried and weighed.

ASM and AIM analysis on mono-dimensional SDS/PAGE

The separation of matrix components, both from AIM and ASM, was performed under denaturing conditions by mono-dimensional SDS/PAGE in 12% polyacrylamide gels (Mini-Protean 3; Bio-Rad, Hercules, CA, USA) according to Laemmli [58]. The protein concentration of the ASM was estimated with the bicinchoninic acid (BCA) assay (BCA-200 Protein Assay kit, Pierce, Rockford, IL, USA). Fifty micrograms of ASM were loaded in each well. One mg of AIM was partly dissolved in 400 µL of 8 m urea at 60 °C (2 h). Twenty µL of urea-soluble AIM were loaded on gel.

Proteins were visualized on gel after staining with silver nitrate [59] or with CBB R-250. To check the reproducibility of our extraction procedure, we performed several decalcifications from single shells, or from different pools of shells.

Infrared analysis on ASM and AIM

IR spectra were recorded with dry lyophylized samples at a 2 cm−1 resolution with ten scans, on a Fourier transform IR spectrometer Brücker Vector 22 (Kahlsrhur, Germany) equipped with a Specac Golden Gatetm ATR device (Specac Ltd., Orpington, UK) in the wave number range of 4000–500 cm−1.

Amino acid composition of ASM and AIM

The amino acid compositions of the two fractions were determined by the Eurosequence Company (Groningen, the Netherlands). Freeze-dried samples were hydrolyzed with 5.7 m HCl in the gas phase for 1.5 h at 150 °C. The resulting hydrolysates were analyzed on an HP 1090 Aminoquant (Hewlett-Packard, Palo Alto, CA, USA) by an automated two-step precolumn derivatization with O-phtalaldehyde for primary and N-(9-fluorenyl)methoxycarbonyl for secondary amino acids. Cysteine residues were quantified after oxidation. Tryptophan was not detected.

Monosaccharide analysis of ASM and AIM

For quantification of neutral monosaccharide contents, lyophilized samples of ASM and AIM (100 µg) were hydrolyzed in 100 µL 2 m trifluoroacetic acid at 105 °C for 4 h. Samples were evaporated to dryness before being dissolved with 100 µL 20 mm NaOH. The neutral and amino sugar contents of the hydrolysates were determined by high performance anion exchange with pulsed amperometric detection (HPAE-PAD) on a CarboPac PA100 column (Dionex Corp., Sunnyvale, CA, USA). Carbohydrate standards (Sigma, St Louis, MO, USA) were injected at 16, 8 and 4 p.p.m. Nonhydrolyzed samples were analyzed similarly to detect free monosaccharides that could have contaminated the sample during dialysis. Note that this technique does not allow the quantification of sialic acids, which are destroyed during hydrolysis with trifluoroacetic acid.

Sialic acid determination was performed by HPAE-PAD after a moderate hydrolysis (0.016 m acetic acid, 3 h, 80 °C), as described by Rohrer [60]. The solution containing the released sialic acids was centrifuged and filtered (Centricon, 3 kDa cut-off; Millipore, Bedford, MA, USA), then dried under vacuum. Samples were re-dissolved in Milli-Q water (Millipore) for measurement.

Spectrophotometric determination of sulfated carbohydrates

The direct 1,9-dimethylmethylene blue (DMB) method for quantifying sulfated polysaccharides [61] was adapted for microplate reading at 655 nm. Chondroitin 4-sulfate was used as standard for the quantification of ASM and AIM sulfated sugars.

ASM polysaccharide staining and ASM calcium-binding ability on gels

Putative glycosylations of ASM macromolecules were studied qualitatively. In particular, saccharide moieties were investigated on denaturing mini-gels by using Alcian Blue 8GX [62], at pH 1 in order to stain specifically sulfated sugars [19], and PAS staining, specific of almost all carbohydrate residues [63]. The calcium-binding ability of ASM and deg-ASM was tested with two techniques: the cationic carbocyanine dye Stains-All staining [20] and the 45Ca overlay procedure [64].

In vitro inhibition of calcium carbonate precipitation by the ASM

ASM were subsequently assayed for in vitro inhibition of calcium carbonate precipitation [38]. Three ml of 40 mm CaCl2 were rapidly added to 3 mL of 40 mm NaHCO3 containing variable amounts of protein extract (1–50 µg). For each experiment, the pH was constantly recorded with a combined glass electrode coupled with a pH-meter (model GLP21; Crison, Barcelona, Spain), connected to a computer. Each concentration was tested in triplicate. Blank tests were performed in absence of protein. Positive controls were performed with poly l-aspartic acid (Sigma).

ASM deglycosylation studies

Chemical deglycosylation of 5 mg of ASM was performed with 1.5 mL of a mixture of TFMS/anisole (2 : 1, v/v) at 0 °C for 3 h, under N2 atmosphere, with constant stirring according to Edge et al. [22]. After neutralization with 2 mL of 50% cold pyridine, the aqueous phase was extracted twice with diethyl ether and then extensively dialyzed against water (5 days) before being lyophilized. Fetuin was treated similarly and used as a positive control of deglycosylation by TFMS. All the deglycosylated extracts were analyzed on mono-dimensional SDS/PAGE.

ASM analysis on 2D gel electrophoresis

Following its quantification by micro-BCA assay, the ASM as well as the chemically deglycosylated ASM, were fractioned by 2D electrophoresis. Isoelectric focusing (IEF) was carried out using a Protean IEF cell (Bio-Rad). Precast 7 cm linear pH 3–10 immobilized pH gradient (IPG) strips were re-hydrated overnight at 50 V (25 °C) with 150 µL buffer containing 80 µg ASM in 6 m urea, 2 m thiourea, 4% (w/v) Chaps, 20 mm dithiothreitol, 0.1% ampholytes and 0.001% bromophenol blue. Immediately afterwards, IEF was carried out at 250 V for 15 min, followed by 8000 V until 10000 Vh. The IPG strips were subsequently transferred 10 min into 2 mL equilibration buffer (6 m urea, 2% SDS, 375 mm Tris/HCl pH 8.8, 20% glycerol) containing 130 mm dithiothreitol and 10 min into the same buffer containing 135 mm iodoacetamide. Strips were rinsed in 25 mm Tris, 192 mm glycine and 0.1% SDS (TGS), positioned on top of precast 4–10% NuPAGE® BisTris Novex SDS-polyacrylamide gels (Invitrogen, Carlsbad, CA, USA) and fixed in place with an overlay solution of 0.5% agarose/TGS (w/v). Electrophoresis was then performed at 200 V for 40 min.

Growth of calcite crystals in the presence of native and chemically deglycosylated ASM

CaCO3 precipitation was performed in vitro by slow diffusion of ammonium carbonate vapour in a calcium chloride solution [65]. The test was adapted as follows: 500 µL of 7.5 mm CaCl2, containing different amounts of native or chemically deglycosylated ASM (0.1 µg·mL−1 to 20 µg·mL−1) were introduced in eight-well culture slides (BD Falcon; Becton Dickinson, Franklin Lakes, NJ, USA). Blank controls were performed without any sample. They were incubated for 48 h at 4 °C in a closed dessicator containing crystals of ammonium bicarbonate. They were then dried, carbon-sputtered and observed at 15 keV by scanning electron microscopy (JEOL 6400).


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Results
  4. Discussion
  5. Experimental procedures
  6. Acknowledgements
  7. References

This work was supported by an Aide Concertée Incitative Jeunes Chercheurs (ACI JC3049) awarded to F. Marin by the French Ministère Déléguéà la Recherche et aux Nouvelles Technologies. B. Marie is financed by a PhD Fellowship (No. 15351) from the Ministère Déléguéà la Recherche et aux Nouvelles Technologies. The ‘Conseil Régional de Bourgogne’ (Dijon, France) provided additional supports for the acquisition of new equipment in the Biogeosciences research unit (UMR CNRS 5561). B. Marie and F. Marin thank Claudie Josse (Laboratoire de Réactivités des solides, University of Burgundy) for helping to handle the scanning electron microscopy and Danielle Bavillet-Tkatchenko (UMR 5188, LSEO, University of Burgundy) for the IR measurements.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Results
  4. Discussion
  5. Experimental procedures
  6. Acknowledgements
  7. References
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