SUMMARY Hardening of invertebrate jaws and mandibles has been previously correlated to diverse, potentially complex modifications. Here we demonstrate directly,for the first time, that Zn plays a critical role in the mechanical properties of histidine-rich Nereis jaws. Using nanoindentation, we show that removal of Zn by chelation decreases both hardness and modulus by over 65%. Moreover, reconstitution of Zn yields a substantial recovery of initial properties. Modulus and hardness of Zn-replete jaws exceed those attainable by current engineering polymers by a factor of >3. Zn-mediated histidine cross-links are proposed to account for this enhancement in mechanical properties.