Nanometer-Scale Chemistry of a Calcite Biomineralization Template: Implications for Skeletal Composition and Nucleation

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2016 Nov 15;113(46):12934-12939. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1522864113. Epub 2016 Oct 28.


Plankton, corals, and other organisms produce calcium carbonate skeletons that are integral to their survival, form a key component of the global carbon cycle, and record an archive of past oceanographic conditions in their geochemistry. A key aspect of the formation of these biominerals is the interaction between organic templating structures and mineral precipitation processes. Laboratory-based studies have shown that these atomic-scale processes can profoundly influence the architecture and composition of minerals, but their importance in calcifying organisms is poorly understood because it is difficult to measure the chemistry of in vivo biomineral interfaces at spatially relevant scales. Understanding the role of templates in biomineral nucleation, and their importance in skeletal geochemistry requires an integrated, multiscale approach, which can place atom-scale observations of organic-mineral interfaces within a broader structural and geochemical context. Here we map the chemistry of an embedded organic template structure within a carbonate skeleton of the foraminifera Orbulina universa using both atom probe tomography (APT), a 3D chemical imaging technique with Ångström-level spatial resolution, and time-of-flight secondary ionization mass spectrometry (ToF-SIMS), a 2D chemical imaging technique with submicron resolution. We quantitatively link these observations, revealing that the organic template in O. universa is uniquely enriched in both Na and Mg, and contributes to intraskeletal chemical heterogeneity. Our APT analyses reveal the cation composition of the organic surface, offering evidence to suggest that cations other than Ca2+, previously considered passive spectator ions in biomineral templating, may be important in defining the energetics of carbonate nucleation on organic templates.

Keywords: biomineralization; foraminifera; geochemistry; paleoceanography; templating.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animal Shells / chemistry
  • Animal Shells / diagnostic imaging
  • Animal Shells / metabolism*
  • Animals
  • Calcification, Physiologic
  • Calcium Carbonate / metabolism*
  • Foraminifera / metabolism*
  • Magnesium / analysis
  • Mass Spectrometry / methods
  • Nanotechnology
  • Sodium / analysis
  • Tomography / methods


  • Sodium
  • Calcium Carbonate
  • Magnesium