The mystery of the volcano-dwelling snail and its iron shell has been unravelled by scientists after its genome was decoded for the first time.
The scaly-foot snail (Chrysomallon squamiferum) survives in what researchers have called the 'impossible living conditions' of underwater volcanic vents.
Enduring searing temperatures, high pressure, strong acidity and low oxygen, it is the only living creature known to incorporate iron into its skeleton.
Studying it will reveal the secrets of how early life evolved, scientists hope, as well as unlocking its 'huge potential' for medicine and other applications.
And now a team at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) has made a breakthrough, decoding its genome for the first time.
The team identified 25 'transcription factors' – proteins that directly interpret the genome – that contribute to the production of tissue-stiffening minerals.
The mystery of a volcano-dwelling snail and its iron shell has been unravelled by scientists after its genome was decoded for the first time. Chrysomallon squamiferum inhabits deep-sea hydrothermal vents with near-impossible living conditions
Researchers collected 20 scaly-foot snails at around 2,900 meters below sea level from the Indian Ocean.
Among their discoveries was a genetic clue about the snail's metal armour, which was revealed by comparing two populations – one from an iron-rich environment and another from an iron-poor one.
'We found that one gene, named MTP – metal tolerance protein – 9, showed a 27-fold increase in the population with iron sulphide mineralization compared to the one without,' said Dr Sun Jin.
'This protein was suggested to enhance tolerance of metal ions.'
Scientists believe this tolerance enables the snails to survive as the iron ions in their environment react with the sulfur in their scales, creating iron sulfides.
Among their discoveries was a genetic clue about the snail's metal armour, which was revealed by comparing two populations: one from an iron-rich environment and another from an iron-poor one. Photo shows a scaly-foot snail from an iron-poor environment
The researchers who made the breakthrough hope the scaly-foot snail will reveal the secrets of how early life evolved and believe it has potential for medicine and other applications. Photo shows a scaly-foot snail from an iron-rich environment
Since this happens at significantly lower temperatures than in a laboratory, the research could even have industrial applications.
'Uncovering this snail's genome advances our knowledge of the genetic mechanism of mollusks, laying the genetic groundwork which paves the way for application,' said Dr Qian