Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

  • Letter
  • Published:

Control of crystal phase switching and orientation by soluble mollusc-shell proteins


IN the initial stages of the biomineralization of abalone shells, a primer layer of oriented calcite crystals grows on a nucleating protein sheet1,2. The deposition of this primer is followed by an abrupt transition to c-axis-oriented crystals of aragonite, another crystalline form of calcium carbonate. The formation of each of the two crystal types is accompanied by the synthesis of specific polyanionic proteins1–3, suggesting that cooperative interactions between these proteins and the inorganic ions during crystal nucleation and growth control the phase of the deposited mineral and that differential expression of the proteins allows the organism to induce phase changes. It is known that soluble shell proteins can control crystal morphology4–10, but it has been suspected that the switch in phase—from calcite to aragonite—might require the deposition of a new nucleating protein sheet. Here we describe in vitro studies of the crystallization of calcium carbonate in the presence of soluble polyanionic proteins extracted from abalone shell. We find that these proteins alone are sufficient to control the crystal phase, allowing us to switch abruptly and sequentially between aragonite and calcite without the need for deposition of an intervening protein sheet. These results show that soluble organic components can exert greater control over hierarchical biomineral growth than hitherto suspected, offering the prospect of similar phase control in materials chemistry.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Access options

Buy this article

Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout

Similar content being viewed by others


  1. Fritz, M. et al. Nature 371, 49–51 (1994).

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  2. Zaremba, C. M. et al. Chem. Mater. 8, 679–690 (1996).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  3. Morse, D. E. et al. Mater. Res. Soc. Symp. Proc. 292, 59–67 (1993).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  4. Addadi, L. & Weiner, S. in Biomineralization: Chemical and Biochemical Perspectives (eds Mann, S., Webb, J. & Williams, R. J. P.) (VCH, New York, 1989).

    Google Scholar 

  5. Aizenberg, J. et al. J. Cryst. Growth 142, 156–164 (1994).

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  6. Aizenberg, J. et al. FASEB J. 9, 262–268 (1995).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  7. Albeck, S. et al. J. Am. chem. Soc. 115, 11691–11697 (1993).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  8. Heywood, B. R. & Mann, S. Adv. Mater. 6, 9–20 (1994).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  9. Mann, S. et al. Science 261, 1286–1292 (1993).

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  10. Greenfield, E. M. & Chrenshaw, M. A. in Origin, Evolution, and Modern Aspects of Biomineralization in Plants and Animals (ed. Crick, R. E.) 303–308 (Plenum, New York, 1989).

    Google Scholar 

  11. Currey, J. D. Proc. R. Soc. Lond. B 196, 443–463 (1977).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  12. Erasumus, J., Cook, P. A. & Sweijd, N. J. Shellfish Res. 13, 493–501 (1994).

    Google Scholar 

  13. Shepherd, S. Aust. J. mar. Freshwat. Res. 46, 607–615 (1995).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Falini, G. et al. Science 271, 67–69 (1996).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  15. Wilbur, K. M. & Watabe, N. Ann. N.Y. Acad. Sci. 109, 82–112 (1963).

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  16. Cariolou, M. A. & Morse, D. E. J. Comp. physiol. B157, 717–729 (1988).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  17. Nakahara, H., Bevlander, G. & Kakei, M. Venus 41, 33–46 (1982).

    Google Scholar 

  18. Weiner, S. Crit. Rev. Biochem. 20, 365–408 (1986).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  19. Mann, S. Nature 132, 119–124 (1988).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Belcher, A., Wu, X., Christensen, R. et al. Control of crystal phase switching and orientation by soluble mollusc-shell proteins. Nature 381, 56–58 (1996).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing