Biological organisms possess an unparalleled ability to control the structure and properties of mineralized tissues. They are able, for example, to guide the formation of smoothly curving single crystals or tough, lightweight, self-repairing skeletal elements. In many biominerals, an organic matrix interacts with the mineral as it forms, controls its morphology and polymorph, and is occluded during mineralization. The remarkable functional properties of the resulting compositesg-such as outstanding fracture toughness and wear resistanceg-can be attributed to buried organicg-inorganic interfaces at multiple hierarchical levels. Analysing and controlling such interfaces at the nanometre length scale is critical also in emerging organic electronic and photovoltaic hybrid materials. However, elucidating the structural and chemical complexity of buried organicg-inorganic interfaces presents a challenge to state-of-the-art imaging techniques. Here we show that pulsed-laser atom-probe tomography reveals three-dimensional chemical maps of organic fibres with a diameter of 5g-10nm in the surrounding nano-crystalline magnetite (Fe 3 O 4) mineral in the tooth of a marine mollusc, the chiton Chaetopleura apiculata. Remarkably, most fibres co-localize with either sodium or magnesium. Furthermore, clustering of these cations in the fibre indicates a structural level of hierarchy previously undetected. Our results demonstrate that in the chiton tooth, individual organic fibres have different chemical compositions, and therefore probably different functional roles in controlling fibre formation and matrixg-mineral interactions. Atom-probe tomography is able to detect this chemical/structural heterogeneity by virtue of its high three-dimensional spatial resolution and sensitivity across the periodic table. We anticipate that the quantitative analysis and visualization of nanometre-scale interfaces by laser-pulsed atom-probe tomography will contribute greatly to our understanding not only of biominerals (such as bone, dentine and enamel), but also of synthetic organicg-inorganic composites.
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