Scientists are unraveling a 2,000-year-old mystery


Unlocking the secrets of the world’s most fascinating and destructive mollusk could impact everything from climate change to public health.
“Shipworms are such important animals,” says Reuben Shipway, co-corresponding author of the research published recently in International Biodeterioration and Biodegradation and who initiated this work as part of his postdoctoral fellowship at UMass Amherst.
“They are found throughout the world’s oceans and not only have they changed history, they are also ecosystem engineers and play a fundamental role in cycling carbon in aquatic environments.
Goodell and Shipway have spent the better part of the last decade trying to answer this question, testing a variety of innovative hypotheses—none of which gave up the shipworms’ secret.
Potential Applications and Environmental Impact Not only does this research help to solve a longstanding mystery, but the findings may also have important practical applications.
Furthermore, previous shipworm symbionts have proven to be a treasure trove of natural products—such as novel anti-parasitic antibiotics—which may have significant impacts on human health.
If symbionts similar to those in shipworms were found in those animals, it could change our understanding of how those animals also make their way in the world.
“We’ve been trying to crack this mystery for years and we finally discovered the shipworm’s hidden bacterial symbiont secret.”


Everything from public health to climate change could be impacted by discovering the mysteries of the most destructive and fascinating mollusk on the planet.

Scientists have not yet been able to determine the precise mechanism by which shipworms, a family of mollusks, can cause such damage, despite the fact that they plagued Greek navies in antiquity, helped shipwreck Christopher Columbus, contributed to the sinking of the Spanish Armada, and caused the wharves in San Francisco Bay to collapse into the sea. The hardest part of wood is called lignin. However, a population of symbiotic microbes called “typhlosole,” a neglected sub-organ of the gut, has the ability to secrete the enzymes required to break down lignin, according to a team of researchers led by the Universities of Massachusetts Amherst and Plymouth, with assistance from the University of Maine and UMass Chan Medical School.

Reuben Shipway, co-corresponding author of the study that was just published in International Biodeterioration and Biodegradation, says of shipworms, “they are such important animals.” Shipway started this research while he was a postdoctoral fellow at UMass Amherst. They inhabit all of the world’s oceans, and in addition to having shaped human history, they are essential to the cycling of carbon in aquatic environments and are also ecosystem engineers. It’s amazing that our comprehension of their methods remains incomplete. “.

Shipworm Reduction of Wood.

Wood is a miraculous material, both flexible and tough, with cellulose that is stringy but nutritious and can make a great meal, but only for those creatures that can both digest it and make it through the layer of lignin, a tough, armor-like substance that surrounds the cellulose like packaging around your favorite treat, guaranteed to induce “wrap rage.”. For an extended period, microbiologists have been aware that termites and other lignin-digesting animals harbor specialized, symbiotic colonies of microbes in their stomachs that perform the task of breaking down lignin on their behalf. However, the digestive tract of the shipworm has long been believed to be nearly sterile, according to lead author Barry Goodell, an emeritus professor at the University of Maine and a recently retired professor of microbiology at UMass Amherst. “.

In light of this, how do shipworms function?

Over the course of the last ten years, Goodell and Shipway have tested a number of creative theories in an effort to find an answer, none of which revealed the shipworms’ secret.

In the unlikely event that the work of the previous 100 years’ worth of researchers missed anything, we chose to examine the shipworm’s gut in great detail once more, according to Goodell. “.

Yes, it does seem to be the case.

Discovered to be embedded in the mollusk’s digestive system, shipworms have an odd sub-organ known as a typhlosole—“it looks like Salvador Dali’s mustache upside down,” said Shipway. The purpose of the structure was initially believed to be that of a mixing structure, but after conducting careful culturing work and utilizing the metagenomic analysis facilities at Argonne National Lab and the cutting-edge genetic probe-microscopy technique at the UMass Amherst Institute for Applied Life Sciences, Goodell and Shipway discovered something that previous generations of researchers had missed: hidden clusters of bacterial symbionts that were capable of producing enzymes that break down lignin.

Possible Uses and Impact on the Environment.

This study’s conclusions may have significant real-world ramifications in addition to helping to unravel a long-standing mystery. Finding new sources of enzymes that can open the structure of biomass residues is crucial to the development of the biotech industry, which is focused on finding new enzymes that can break down resistant substrates more quickly than present bio-industrial processes can. Moreover, shipworm symbionts from the past have shown to be a veritable gold mine of natural products, including innovative antibiotics that fight parasites and may have a major effect on human health.

Regarding climate change, studies like this one can improve models that predict the release of CO2 and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. This is especially important since a lot of woody debris from land ends up in the ocean, where a large portion of it travels through the shipworm’s digestive tract.

Lastly, a typhlosole that has not been well studied previously is found in other animal species, such as other mollusks, the common earthworm, and even the tadpole stages of frogs. It would alter our knowledge of how those animals navigate the environment if symbionts resembling those in shipworms were discovered in those creatures. In regards to the research, Goodell says, “It’s very satisfying.”. After years of investigation, we have finally uncovered the bacterial symbiont secret of the shipworm. “.

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