It has always been a mystery why the scaly-foot snail can live in “impossible living conditions” but thanks to scientists at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST), the genome has been decoded and it has been revealed why these particular creatures can survive in hot underwater volcanic vents. These underwater conditions have extreme temperatures, high pressure, strong acidity, and low oxygen.
HKUST made a breakthrough in discovering the genome of the scaley-foot snail, which is the only creature known to incorporate iron into its skeleton. In future, this should also help unlock more secrets such as how early life evolved, and potentially help aid medicinal development.
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The team used 20 scaly-food snails from the Indian Ocean in partnership with the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology. The scientists now understand more about the snail’s metal armour by comparing two populations, one from an iron-rich environment and one from an iron-poor one.
Dr Sun Jin said: “We found that one gene, named MTP (metal tolerance protein) 9, showed a 27-fold increase in the population with iron sulphide mineralisation compared to the one without. This protein was suggested to enhance tolerance of metal ions.”
This tolerance means the harsh environments react with the sulfur in the scales of the snails, creating iron sulphides.
Dr Qian Peiyuan said: “Uncovering this snail’s genome advances our knowledge of the genetic mechanism of mollusks, laying the genetic groundwork which paves the way for application.”
It was also discovered that the iron-coated shells can withstand heavy blows, meaning this could provide an insight into ways to make more protective armour.
Researchers also found the snails had no wholly unique genes, despite the unusual features.
Dr Qian added: “Although no new gene was identified, our research offers valuable insight into the combination of genes, which defines the morphology of a species.”
The snail’s genome sequence has remained unchanged throughout its evolution, with armour-like scales common among snails more than 540 million years ago.
Scientists believe studying the snails could shed light on how life evolved in past geological periods.