Iron: What Humans Can Learn From Tiny Glowing Worms About This Vital Mineral

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Image of a parchment sea worm, taken in Florida. New research in the creature could help people with iron deficiencies. James St. John, Flickr

If you don't already know about tubeworms you should for two reasons: one, they're really cool and emit light for hours, and two, because a new study conducted in the sea creature could prove useful for humans, particularly in people with iron deficiencies.

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Tubeworms, like humans, have a protein called ferritin in their bodies. Ferritin stores iron and helps keep the mineral stable, so there's not too much or little in our blood stream. When iron is released from its ferritin home to be used by our bodies, it must first be converted into a different state of oxidation. According to the study authors, ferritin can take in iron and store it for the future to nourish your body when needed.

This new study by researchers from the University of California San Diego, indicates that tube worms are able to do this process more efficiently than humans.

In the study, iron was added to test tubes containing human and tube worm ferritin. Researchers recorded the response times of how quickly it took iron to convert and found that tube worm ferritin worked almost eight times more quickly.

"We were surprised to discover that even though the tubeworm ferritin is very similar to human ferritin, it outperforms the human variant, by a lot," study co-author Dimitri Deheyn, said in a statement. "There are major biotechnological research implications to this finding, in particular for the many labs that develop ferritin applications."

The study authors note that this new finding could help with medical research, too.

So why exactly do you need iron? Well, our bodies use it to make the proteins hemoglobin and myoglobin, which transport oxygen throughout our bodies and muscles (yes, our muscles thrive on oxygen too). The National Institute of Health explains that iron is also important for building connective tissue to keep our skeletal systems healthy. Iron deficiency does not have obvious symptoms, but many everyday annoyances could be tied to a lack of the nutrient. Fatigue, gastrointestinal issues, trouble concentrating and being susceptible to illness are all signs that you might need more iron.

Although iron deficiency is rare in the United States, a healthy diet that includes lean protein, seafood, beans and lentils is important to maintaining a healthy level (at least until researchers can figure out how we can be more like these cool, glowing worms).