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Nature's engineers reveal nano skills

26 June 2007

Morpho butterfly scales fluorescing under confocal laser microscope. ©A Ball/NHM

Morpho butterfly scales fluorescing under confocal laser microscope. © A Ball/Natural History Museum

Scientists at the Natural History Museum have discovered a way to replicate tiny structures in nature using nature itself.

Insects are a rich source of inspiration for engineers developing innovative new materials.

Moths and butterflies have anti-reflective eyes to see in low light and some beetles have iridescent wings for camouflage and signalling.

These are examples of properties that could have many valuable uses in industries such as cosmetics, paint, and defence.

Biomimetics
Scanning electron micrograph of the morpho nanostructures© Japanese Society of Applied Physics.

Scanning electron micrograph of the morpho butterfly scale structures in the wings that reflect blue light. © Japanese Society of Applied Physics.

Extracting designs from nature is known as biomimetics, but replicating these nanostructures is extremely difficult and expensive because of their tiny size. However, a team of scientists have found a way to get living cells to do the job for them.

'We've found, for the first time ever, that we can not only make the iridescent structures found in nature with conventional engineering, but we can also culture cells to make them for us,' said Professor Andrew Parker, lead researcher and zoologist at the Natural History Museum.

'So rather than developing complicated and expensive engineering techniques, we can let nature do the hard work.'

Conventional engineering
A replica of the scale structures in morpho butterflies. © Japanese Society of Applied Physics.

A replica of the wing scale structures in morpho butterflies. © Japanese Society of Applied Physics.

Manufactured replicas of the optical structures found in iridescent blue morpho butterfly wings are used as antennas or anti-reflection coatings for radar systems. When made using conventional methods, these structures are 1,000 times the size of their natural counterparts, but culturing techniques could produce actual-sized structures.

Cell cultures

Using cell culture techniques, scientists have identified the butterfly cells in chrysalises that later develop to produce the iridescent scales in adults. The scale-making cells are separated and then kept alive in cultures and triggered to produce more scales by adding growth hormones.

Single-celled organisms such as this diatom are used to produce nanostructures.

Single-celled organisms such as this diatom are used to make nanostructures.

Single-celled organisms such as diatoms and viruses are then used to produce greater quantities of the optical devices, which can be made to measure by controlling the culture conditions, and it is possible they could be produced by the tonne.

These recent techniques are a collaboration between biologists, physicists, engineers, chemists and material scientists and offer hope for commercially manufacturing materials that were previously too costly.

Environmentally friendly

Unlike engineered materials, the natural structures are biodegradable and therefore environmentally friendly. The natural engineering process takes place at low temperatures and pressures and has a low carbon footprint.

Andrew commented, 'This is a fantastic development for the billion pound optics industry. The ultimate goals in this area will be to replicate the natural machinery that butterflies, beetles and diatoms use, which under the right conditions will assemble everything for us.'


The research is published in the journal Nature Nanotechnology

Andrew Parker is author of the books Seven Deadly Colours and In the Blink of an Eye  and they are on sale in the Museum shop.

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