By Kate Stone
Anyone who has a tried to squeeze a chicken egg from end to end knows how strong eggshells are. Not much in nature mineralizes as quickly as a bird egg. How is it that fertilized chicken eggs manage to resist fracture from the outside while, at the same time, can be broken open from the inside by a tiny chick? It’s all in the eggshell nanostructure, according to a new study led by McGill University scientists and published in the journal Science Advances.
For millions of years, birds have been evolving to make the perfect eggshell. The result is a thin, protective, biomineralized growth chamber that contains all the nutrients required for the development of a baby bird. The shell is not too strong, not too weak, and resists breaking until it’s time for hatching.
How are bird eggshells so perfect?
To find out, a team of researchers from several different fields, including engineering and dentistry, took a very close look at the molecular nanostructure and mechanical properties of eggshells.
“Eggshells are notoriously difficult to study by traditional means, because they easily break when we try to make a thin slice for imaging by electron microscopy,” says Marc McKee of McGill University.
“Thanks to a new focused-ion beam sectioning system recently obtained by McGill’s Facility for Electron Microscopy Research, we were able to accurately and thinly cut the sample and image the interior of the shell.”
It turns out eggshells are made of both inorganic and organic matter. They contain calcium-containing minerals and abundant proteins. The amazing strength of eggshells comes from a nanostructured mineral associated with osteopontin, an eggshell protein also found in composite biological materials such as our bones.
Inside incredible eggshells
When first laid and during brooding, eggshells are hard enough to protect them from breakage. As the chick grows inside the eggshell, it needs calcium to form its bones. The growing chick gets that calcium from its eggshell. During egg incubation, the inner portion of the shell dissolves to provide this mineral ion supply while at the same time weakening the shell enough to be broken by the hatching baby bird.
In other experiments, the researchers were able to re-create a nanostructure similar to that which they discovered in eggshells by adding osteopontin to mineral crystals grown in the lab.
This research was funded by grants from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.
Athanasiadou, D., et al. (2018). Nanostructure, osteopontin, and mechanical properties of calcitic avian eggshell. Science Advances, (4), 3. DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aar3219.
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Eggshells in the lab. Photo courtesy of Laurie Devine, McGill University