Did you know that there are a type of snail that survives in the seemingly impossible heat generated by underwater volcanoes? These gnarly little dudes have iron shells and look like something in an 8-bit era video game. First discovered living around searing temperatures, high pressure, strong acidity and low oxygen, it is the only living creature known to incorporate iron into its skeleton. Unlocking the secrets of its strange little snail body could mean understanding the evolutionary processes of ocean life as well as providing potential insights into medicinal research.
A team of scientists working out of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology were able to crack the genome of the scaly-foot snails. Using 20 of the little guys, taken from the depths of the Indian Ocean, and working in Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology (JAMSTEC), the team discovered a genetic clue about the snail's metal armour.
"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 Peiyuan. "One possible direction now is how their iron-coated shells withstand heavy blows, which can provide us insights on ways to make a more protective armour."
"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."
One of the most fascinating discoveries was that the snail had no wholly unique genes, despite its unique features, with the same genes also present in other mollusks such as squid.
"Although no new gene was identified, our research offers valuable insight to the combination of genes which defines the morphology of a species," said Dr Qian.
It's been theorised that life may have begun at hydrothermal vents.