The Gap-Free Helices of Sea Snails

Physics 15, s140
The shells of some mollusk species have compact helical structures that researchers propose develop from the self-assembly of a liquid-crystalline material.
Katja Peijnenburg

With flapping, wing-like appendages that extend from their foot, sea butterflies are some of the stranger inhabitants of the world’s oceans. These creatures, which are actually swimming snails, typically have translucent, calcified shells with complex microscopic structures. Now Julyan Cartwright of the University of Granada, Spain, and colleagues have confirmed that the shells of at least two families of these creatures are formed of helical filaments of calcium carbonate [1]. The team proposes that these twisty microstructures develop from liquid-crystalline precursors.

Interest in helically patterned systems was ignited recently, as materials containing such coiled structures have been found to be more robust to damage—the tortuous helices make it difficult for cracks to propagate, adding significant strength. Such helical structures were first found in the calcareous shells of mollusks 50 years ago, but it was unclear exactly how they form.

K. Berent et al. [1]
The structure of the Cuvierina columnella mollusk shell (left) resembles that of a stack of fusilli lunghi (right).

Cartwright and colleagues used a scanning electron microscope to image fracture surfaces of shells from four sea butterfly species. They found layered structures with cross sections matching those expected for “space-filling” helices—helices with no empty space between their coils.

The shells of these mollusks are known to grow via the addition of rod-like units to the shells’ undersides. Previous experiments using simple analogs of these units produced certain patterns seen in liquid crystals made of similar rod-shaped particles. Such liquid crystals can form a helical phase resembling the microstructure seen in sea butterfly shells, but this phase has yet to be replicated in the analog systems. The team hypothesizes that, in nature, proteins and other molecules in the liquid under the shell push the system into the parameter regime for that phase. The rod-containing liquid then mineralizes, locking in the helical structure.

–Katherine Wright

Katherine Wright is the Deputy Editor of Physics Magazine.


  1. K. Berent et al., “Helical microstructures in molluscan biomineralization are a biological example of close packed helices that may form from a colloidal liquid crystal precursor in a twist-bend nematic phase,” Phys. Rev. Mater. 6, 105601 (2022).

Subject Areas

Biological PhysicsMaterials Science

Related Articles

Sensing Fish at a Distance
Biological Physics

Sensing Fish at a Distance

The whiskers of some marine mammals are sensitive to the turbulent wakes left by fish. A new experiment investigates how this process works over different distances. Read More »

Droplets Come to Life
Fluid Dynamics

Droplets Come to Life

Phase separation within cells creates droplets whose chemical activity leads to surprising mobility that serves cellular function and hints at the origin of life. Read More »

A Watery Probe for Ion–Electron Interactions
Biological Physics

A Watery Probe for Ion–Electron Interactions

Researchers have developed a method for measuring the strength of certain ion–electron interactions in water, with initial tests throwing up unexpected results. Read More »

More Articles