Conversations in Science Series
A program conceived and organized by the Wisconsin Initiative for Science Literacy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, with the collaboration of the Madison Metropolitan School District and the Edgewood Sonderegger Science Center.

Thursday, March 13, 2008 at 4:00 p.m.
LOCATION: Sonderegger Science Center (For parking information click here)
1000 Edgewood College Drive Madison, Wisconsin

Professor Pupa Gilbert
Department of Physics
“Biominerals, the Toughest Structures of Life”

The Conversations in Science series brings together UW-Madison science researchers and Dane County science teachers. Designed to stimulate discussion between scientists and science educators at all levels, these conversations connect high-, middle-, and elementary school classrooms with the University's cutting-edge research. Questions and ideas are freely exchanged between expert and an audience of K-12 educators.


Biominerals are the hard tissues produced by living organisms.
They include:
   -  Calcium phosphates (Ca10(PO4)6(OH)2) in teeth and bones
   -  Calcium carbonates (CaCO3) in mollusk shells, eggshells, otoliths, statoliths etc.
   -  Magnetite (Fe3O4), which appears to be used by bacteria, sharks, honey bees,
       and homing pigeons to detect the direction of the earth's magnetic field.
   -  Many other sulfides, oxides and other minerals, which form more than 70 biominerals thus far discovered.

All biominerals share common characteristics: they are composed of ~1% organic molecules and 99% minerals, therefore the organism only needs to transmit down the lineage information on how to form 1% of the final of the biomineral, yet 100% of it is formed. This can be considered a very efficient “genomic shortcut”. The formation of the complete biomineral is directed by the organics, via mechanisms that we are just beginning to understand, such as templating and self-assembly. Biominerals are highly organized hierarchial structures, that is, they present different architectures at different scales, from the nanometersto centimeters. All biominerals are tough. Their resistance to fracture is much greater (100-1000 times greater) than the minerals of which they are composed. We have not yet learned how to produce synthetic material that outperform their components. All these reasons make biominerals extremely intriguing to study for a variety of scientists in physics, chemistry, biology, materials science and engineering. I will present a physicist’s point of view, and discuss in depth mother-of-pearl, a widely studied yet mysterious biomineral, remarkably tough and beautiful.


Pupa Gilbert is a Professor of Physics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She earned her Ph.D. in Physics from the University of Rome “La Sapienza” with a specialization in biophysi. She joined the faculty in 1999 and taught “Physics in the Arts”, “Microscopy of Life” and “Introductory Physics” ever since. She was Scientific Director (2002-2006) of the Synchrotron Radiation Center. She developed two new therapies for glioblastoma, the most lethal brain cancer, and most recently her research focused on biomineralization. Her work was recognized by several awards at the national and international level. She was knighted by the President of Italy for the cancer therapies (2000), she won the Romnes (2002), Vilas (2006) and Hamel (2008) awards at UW-Madison, the national and then the international The Outstanding Young Persons of the world award, selected among the winning candidates of 116 countries (1997), and was nominated for the l’Oréal prize for Women in Science (2007, one nominee per country). She published over one hundred publications in refereed journals, including Cancer Research, Science, and Physical Review Letters.

She loves science and art, and combined the two during the 5-year-long adventure of writing a book, which only recently ended: the book “Physics in the Arts”, by Pupa Gilbert and Willy Haeberli, was Published by Elsevier-Academic Press in January 2008. She is currently enjoying a sabbatical year in Berkeley, with her husband Ben.


1. “BIOMINERALIZATION: Principles and Concepts in Bioinorganic Materials Chemistry”, by Stephen S. Mann. Oxford University Press, 2001

2. Professor Pupa Gilbert's webpage

3. “Physics in the Arts”, by P.U.P.A. Gilbert and Willy Haeberli. Academic Press-Elsevier, 2008

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