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New understanding of avian eggshell attachment

Implications for medical procedures and egg industry
Published: 13 February 2024

Athletes often suffer injuries to ligaments in their knees, particularly to the anterior cruciate ligament or ACL. While surgery to replace these torn ligaments is becoming increasingly common around the world it often needs to be repeated. That’s because it has proved challenging to anchor fibrous, soft and wet ligament grafting material into hard bone. 

Now, McGill University researchers have new information from the eggshell membrane in chicken eggs that could help change this picture thanks to the potential it offers for improvements in tissue engineering and biomaterial grafts.  

Their findings also have the potential to reduce losses for commercial egg and poultry producers.  

Anchoring soft and wet fibres by “nailing” them in place 

The researchers discovered how the hard shell of a bird egg attaches to the underlying wet fibrous membrane of the egg (the thin membranous layer found inside the shell seen when peeling a hard-boiled egg). By using advanced 3D imaging X-ray and electron microscopes together with cryo-preservation methods the research team were able to peer into this interface in three dimensions to visualize and quantify the interlocking phenomenon. 

“Until now, no one had considered how this interface between these two very dissimilar substances, one a hard biorock, and the other a soft fibrous membrane, might be secured at the nanoscale,” says Marc McKee, a professor in the Faculty of Dental Medicine and Oral Health Sciences, and in the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology, and the principal investigator of the study conducted by doctoral student Daniel Buss and published recently in iScience. “What we found about this soft-hard interface is quite remarkable.” 

Nanospikes increase the surface area of contact between soft and hard materials and ensure food safety 

The McGill team discovered that, at a certain stage in the development of an egg prior to laying, the shell sends mineral nanospikes into the soft and compliant surface fibres of the underlying eggshell membrane. This membrane surrounds the soft contents of the egg interior, being either the egg white and yolk from table eggs, or the developing chick embryo in a fertilized and incubated egg.  

This nanospiking attachment process between two highly dissimilar materials substantially increases the surface area of the interface between the soft and wet organic fibres and the hard and largely dry inorganic mineral. Such an attachment importantly anchors and secures this soft-hard interface to prevent slipping and sliding of the fibres within the shell 

Otherwise, detachment of the membrane from the shell can be lethal for the embryonic chick, can weaken the shell, and/or can allow the invasion of pathogens (such as salmonella) into the interior contents of the egg. Food safety of the table egg relies on an intact shell that is well-integrated with its underlying membrane. 

Implications for medical procedures and commercial egg production 

With this new understanding of the shell-membrane interface as being a characteristic feature of strong, safe and healthy eggs, losses for table egg producers and poultry breeders might be reduced through the establishment of commercial genetic breeding programs that maintain or maximize this interfacial structure.  

The findings might also potentially lead to new engineered, hybrid composite material designs, and to new procedures to improve the outcomes of various medical and dental reconstructive surgeries, both of which may require attaching soft wet fibres to hard materials.  

About the study

Attaching organic fibers to mineral: The case of the avian eggshell” by Daniel J.Buss,NatalieReznikov,Marc D.McKee was published in iScience 

About McGill University

Founded in Montreal, Quebec, in 1821, McGill University is Canada’s top ranked medical doctoral university. McGill is consistently ranked as one of the top universities, both nationally and internationally. It is a world-renowned institution of higher learning with research activities spanning three campuses, 11 faculties, 13 professional schools, 300 programs of study and over 39,000 students, including more than 10,400 graduate students. McGill attracts students from over 150 countries around the world, its 12,000 international students making up 30% of the student body. Over half of McGill students claim a first language other than English, including approximately 20% of our students who say French is their mother tongue.

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