Tag Archives: butterflies

A snout weevil at the end of the rainbow

I’ve never heard of a snout weevil before but it seems to be a marvelous creature,

Caption: Left: A photograph of the ‘rainbow’ weevil, with the rainbow-colored spots on its thorax and elytra (wing casings). Right: A microscope image of the rim of a single rainbow spot, showing the different colors of individual scales. Credit: Dr Bodo D Wilts

From a Sept. 11, 2018 news item on Nanowerk,

Researchers from Yale [University]-NUS College and the University of Fribourg in Switzerland have discovered a novel colour-generation mechanism in nature, which if harnessed, has the potential to create cosmetics and paints with purer and more vivid hues, screen displays that project the same true image when viewed from any angle, and even reduce the signal loss in optical fibres.

Yale-NUS College Assistant Professor of Science (Life Science) Vinodkumar Saranathan led the study with Dr Bodo D Wilts from the Adolphe Merkle Institute at the University of Fribourg. Dr Saranathan examined the rainbow-coloured patterns in the elytra (wing casings) of a snout weevil from the Philippines, Pachyrrhynchus congestus pavonius, using high-energy X-rays, while Dr Wilts performed detailed scanning electron microscopy and optical modelling.

They discovered that to produce the rainbow palette of colours, the weevil utilised a colour-generation mechanism that is so far found only in squid, cuttlefish, and octopuses, which are renowned for their colour-shifting camouflage.

A Sept. 11, 2018 Yale-NUS College news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, offers more on the weevil and on the research,

P. c. pavonius, or the “Rainbow” Weevil, is distinctive for its rainbow-coloured spots on its thorax and elytra (see attached image). These spots are made up of nearly-circular scales arranged in concentric rings of different hues, ranging from blue in the centre to red at the outside, just like a rainbow. While many insects have the ability to produce one or two colours, it is rare that a single insect can produce such a vast spectrum of colours. Researchers are interested to figure out the mechanism behind the natural formation of these colour-generating structures, as current technology is unable to synthesise structures of this size.

“The ultimate aim of research in this field is to figure out how the weevil self-assembles these structures, because with our current technology we are unable to do so,” Dr Saranathan said. “The ability to produce these structures, which are able to provide a high colour fidelity regardless of the angle you view it from, will have applications in any industry which deals with colour production. We can use these structures in cosmetics and other pigmentations to ensure high-fidelity hues, or in digital displays in your phone or tablet which will allow you to view it from any angle and see the same true image without any colour distortion. We can even use them to make reflective cladding for optical fibres to minimise signal loss during transmission.”

Dr Saranathan and Dr Wilts examined these scales to determine that the scales were composed of a three-dimensional crystalline structure made from chitin (the main ingredient in insect exoskeletons). They discovered that the vibrant rainbow colours on this weevil’s scales are determined by two factors: the size of the crystal structure which makes up each scale, as well as the volume of chitin used to make up the crystal structure. Larger scales have a larger crystalline structure and use a larger volume of chitin to reflect red light; smaller scales have a smaller crystalline structure and use a smaller volume of chitin to reflect blue light. According to Dr Saranathan, who previously examined over 100 species of insects and spiders and catalogued their colour-generation mechanisms, this ability to simultaneously control both size and volume factors to fine-tune the colour produced has never before been shown in insects, and given its complexity, is quite remarkable. “It is different from the usual strategy employed by nature to produce various different hues on the same animal, where the chitin structures are of fixed size and volume, and different colours are generated by orienting the structure at different angles, which reflects different wavelengths of light,” Dr Saranathan explained.

The research was partly supported though the National Centre of Competence in Research “Bio-Inspired Materials” and the Ambizione program of the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) to Dr Wilts, and partly through a UK Royal Society Newton Fellowship, a Linacre College EPA Cephalosporin Junior Research Fellowship, and Yale-NUS College funds to Dr Saranathan. Dr Saranathan is currently part of a research team led by Yale-NUS College Associate Professor of Science Antonia Monteiro, which has recently been awarded a separate Competitive Research Programme (CRP) grant by Singapore’s National Research Foundation (NRF) to examine the genetic basis of the colour-generation mechanism in butterflies. Dr Saranathan and Dr Monteiro are both also from the Department of Biological Sciences at the National University of Singapore (NUS) Faculty of Science. In addition, Dr Saranathan is affiliated with the NUS Nanoscience and Nanotechnology Initiative.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Literal Elytral Rainbow: Tunable Structural Colors Using Single Diamond Biophotonic Crystals in Pachyrrhynchus congestus Weevils by Bodo D. Wilts, Vinodkumar Saranathan. Samll https://doi.org/10.1002/smll.201802328 First published: 15 August 2018

This paper is behind a paywall.

X-ray of a butterfly’s wing reveals structural colour secrets

Over millions of years, butterflies evolved sophisticated cellular mechanisms to produce brightly colored wings for mating and camouflage. iStock photo by Borut Trdina

Over millions of years, butterflies evolved sophisticated cellular mechanisms to produce brightly colored wings for mating and camouflage. iStock photo by Borut Trdina

A June 13, 2016 news item on Nanowerk announced a discovery about the physics of colour,

A team of physicists that visualized the internal nanostructure of an intact butterfly wing has discovered two physical attributes that make those structures so bright and colorful.

“Over millions of years, butterflies have evolved sophisticated cellular mechanisms to grow brightly colored structures, normally for the purpose of camouflage as well as mating,” says Oleg Shpyrko, an associate professor of physics at UC San Diego, who headed the research effort. “It’s been known for a century that the wings of these beautiful creatures contain what are called photonic crystals, which can reflect light of only a particular color.”

But exactly how these complex optical structures are assembled in a way that make them so bright and colorful remained a mystery.

A June 10, 2016 University of California at San Diego news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes how the mystery was solved,

In an effort to answer that question, Shpyrko and Andrej Singer, a postdoctoral researcher in his laboratory, went to the Advanced Photon Source at the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois, which produces coherent x-rays very much like an optical laser

By combining these laser-like x-rays with an advanced imaging technique called “ptychography,” the UC San Diego physicists, in collaboration with physicists at Yale University and the Argonne National Laboratory, developed a new microscopy method to visualize the internal nanostructure of the tiny “scales” that make up the butterfly wing without the need to cut them apart.

The researchers report in the current issue of the journal Science Advances that their examination of the scales of the Emperor of India butterfly, Teinopalpus imperialis, revealed that these tiny wing structures consist of “highly oriented” photonic crystals.

“This explains why the scales appear to have a single color,” says Singer, the first author of the paper. “We also found through careful study of the high-resolution micrographs tiny crystal irregularities that may enhance light-scattering properties, making the butterfly wings appear brighter.”

These crystal dislocations or defects occur, the researchers say, when an otherwise perfectly periodic crystal lattice slips by one row of atoms. “Defects may have a negative connotation, but they are actually very useful in improving materials,” explains Singer. “For example, blacksmiths have learned over centuries how to purposefully induce defects into metals to make them stronger. ‘Defect engineering’ is also a focus for many research teams and companies working in the semiconductor field. In photonic crystals, defects can enhance light-scattering properties through an effect called light localization.”

“In the evolution of butterfly wings,” he adds, “it appears nature learned how to engineer these defects on purpose.”

The researchers have made this image illustrating their work available,

Scales from the wings of the Emperor of India butterfly consist of “highly oriented” photonic crystals. Photos by Andrej Singer, UC San Diego

Scales from the wings of the Emperor of India butterfly consist of “highly oriented” photonic crystals. Photos by Andrej Singer, UC San Diego

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Domain morphology, boundaries, and topological defects in biophotonic gyroid nanostructures of butterfly wing scales by Andrej Singer, Leandra Boucheron, Sebastian H. Dietze, Katharine E. Jensen, David Vine, Ian McNulty, Eric R. Dufresne, Richard O. Prum, Simon G. J. Mochrie, and Oleg G. Shpyrko. Science Advances  10 Jun 2016: Vol. 2, no. 6, e1600149 DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1600149

This paper is open access.

A butterfly kind of day: changing structural colour in six generations and developing fluidic devices

I have two items concerning butterflies. The first is a bioengineering project at Yale University where they changed the colour of a butterfly’s wings from brown to violet (from an Aug. 5, 2014 news item on ScienceDaily),

Yale University scientists have chosen the most fleeting of mediums for their groundbreaking work on biomimicry: They’ve changed the color of butterfly wings.

In so doing, they produced the first structural color change in an animal by influencing evolution. The discovery may have implications for physicists and engineers trying to use evolutionary principles in the design of new materials and devices.

An Aug.5, 2014 Yale University news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item,

“What we did was to imagine a new target color for the wings of a butterfly, without any knowledge of whether this color was achievable, and selected for it gradually using populations of live butterflies,” said Antónia Monteiro, a former professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Yale, now at the National University of Singapore.

In this case, Monteiro and her team changed the wing color of the butterfly Bicyclus anynana from brown to violet. They needed only six generations of selection.

The news release goes on to explain the interest in structural colour,

Little is known about how structural colors in nature evolved, although researchers have studied such mechanisms extensively in recent years. Most attempts at biomimicry involve finding a desirable outcome in nature and simply trying to copy it in the laboratory.

“Today, materials engineers are making complex materials to perform multiple functions. The parameter space for the design of such materials is huge, so it is not easy to search for the optimal design,” said Hui Cao, chair of Yale’s Department of Applied Physics, who also worked on the study. “This is why we can learn from nature, which has obtained the optimal solutions in many cases via natural evolution over millions of years.”

Indeed, the scientists explained, natural selection algorithms can select for multiple characteristics simultaneously — which is standard operating procedure in the natural world.

A bit of technical information is also included in the news release,

The desired color for the butterfly wings was achieved by changing the relative thickness of the wing scales — specifically, those of the lower lamina. It took less than a year of selective breeding to produce the color change from brown to violet.

One reason Bicyclus anynana was chosen for the experiment, Monteiro said, was because it has cousin species that have evolved violet colors on their wings twice independently. By reproducing such a change in the lab, the Yale team showed that butterfly populations harbor high levels of genetic variation regulating scale thickness that lets them react quickly to new selective conditions.

“We just thought if natural selection has been able to modify wing colors in members of this genus of butterfly, perhaps so can we,” Monteiro said.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Artificial selection for structural color on butterfly wings and comparison with natural evolution by Bethany R. Wasik, Seng Fatt Liew, David A. Lilien, April J. Dinwiddie, Heeso Noh, Hui Cao, and Antónia Monteiro. PNAS doi: 10.1073/pnas.1402770111 Published online August 4, 2014

This seems to be an open access paper (I was able to access the six page paper, albeit in a small font, by clicking on an Adobe reader icon).

I have not been able to find an image of the newly violet-coloured Bicyclus anynana butterfly but Yale University has provided an image of the pre-bioengineered version,

This image shows a male Bicyclus anynana, prior to the wing color change. (Below) This image shows the color change from brown to violet, over six generations of breeding. (Photographs courtesy of Antónia Monteiro)

This image shows a male Bicyclus anynana, prior to the wing color change. (Below) This image shows the color change from brown to violet, over six generations of breeding. (Photographs courtesy of Antónia Monteiro)

One of my favourite pieces on structural colour was written for The Scientist and was featured here in a Feb. 7, 2013 posting. Interestingly, Yale University is mentioned in that posting too.

This second butterfly piece focuses on its feeding habits and possible medical applications. From an Aug. 5, 2014 news item on ScienceDaily,

New discoveries about how butterflies feed could help engineers develop tiny probes that siphon liquid out of single cells for a wide range of medical tests and treatments, according to Clemson University researchers.

The National Science Foundation recently awarded the project $696,514. It was the foundation’s third grant to the project, bringing the total since 2009 to more than $3 million.

The research has brought together Clemson’s materials scientists and biologists who have been focusing on the proboscis, the mouthpart that many insects used for feeding.

For materials scientists, the goal is to develop what they call “fiber-based fluidic devices,” among them probes that could eventually allow doctors to pluck a single defective gene out of a cell and replace it with a good one, said Konstantin Kornev, a Clemson materials physics professor. “If someone were programmed to have an illness, it would be eliminated,” he said.

An Aug. 5, 2014 Clemson University media release by Paul Alongi (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, explains that this latest research is one of the first steps in a long journey,

… Much remains unknown about how insects use tiny pores and channels in the proboscis to sample and handle fluid.

“It’s like the proverbial magic well,” said Clemson entomology professor Peter Adler. “The more we learn about the butterfly proboscis, the more it has for us to learn about it.”

Kornev said he was attracted to butterflies for their ability to draw various kinds of liquids.

“It can be very thick like nectar and honey or very thin like water,” he said. “They do that easily. That’s a challenge for engineers.”

Researchers want the probe to be able to take fluid out of a single cell, which is 10 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair, Kornev said. The probe also will need to differentiate between different types of fluids, he said.

The technology could be used for medical devices, nanobioreactors that make complex materials and flying “micro-air vehicles” the size of an insect.

“It opens up a huge number of applications,” Kornev said. “We are actively seeking collaboration with cell biologists, medical doctors and other professionals who might find this research exciting and helpful in their applications.”

The study also is breaking new ground in biology. While scientists had a fundamental idea of how butterflies feed, it was less complete than it is now, Adler said.

Scientists have long known that butterflies use the proboscis to suck up fluid, similar to how humans use a drinking straw, Adler said. But the study found that the butterfly proboscis also acts as a sponge, he said.

“It’s a dual mechanism,” Adler said. “As they move the proboscis around, it can help sponge up the liquid and then facilitate the delivery of the liquid so that it can then be sucked up.”

As part of the study, researchers observed butterflies on flowers at the Cherry Farm Insectary just south of the main campus on the shore of Hartwell Lake. Butterflies were raised in the lab and recorded on video as they fed.

Researchers are turning their attention to smaller insects, such as flies, moths and mosquitoes, but the focus will remain on the proboscis.

In the next phase of the study, researchers would like to understand how the proboscis forms.

Larvae enter the pupa without a proboscis and emerge as a butterfly with one. Understanding what happens in the pupa could help develop the probes, Adler said.

Another challenge is figuring out how to keep the probe from getting covered with organic material when it’s inserted into the body, he said.

That’s why researchers are beginning to turn their focus to an insect almost everyone else shoos away.

“It seems the flies are able to pierce an animal’s tissue, take up the blood and not get the proboscis gummed up and covered with bacteria,” Adler said.

Tanju Karanfil, associate dean of research and graduate studies in the College of Engineering and Science, said the study has underscored the importance of breaking down silos that separate researchers from different departments so they can work for the common good.

“The most interesting work happens at the intersection of disciplines,” he said. “In this case, biologists and engineers have come together with different perspectives to answer common questions.

I have a link (which takes you to a correction for the text) and a citation for the paper,

Paradox of the drinking-straw model of the butterfly proboscis by Chen-Chih Tsai, Daria Monaenkova, Charles Beard, Peter Adler, and Konstantin Kornev. J. Exp. Biol. 217, 2130-2138. Original article: doi: 10.1242/​jeb.097998 June 15, 2014 J Exp Biol 217, 2130-2138 Correction: doi: 10.1242/​jeb.109447 July 1, 2014

The article is behind a paywall but you can view the correction in its entirety.

Butterflies give and give; this time they inspire more green fuel production

Butterflies are proving to be quite generous as they inspire ideas for greater production of green fuels in addition to everything else they’ve inspired. From the March 26, 2012 news item on Nanowerk,

“We were searching the ‘art of blackness’ for the secret of how those black wings [from black butterflies] absorb so much sunlight and reflect so little,” Fan [Tongxiang Fan, Ph.D] explained.…

Fan’s team observed elongated rectangular scales arranged like overlapping shingles on the roof of a house. The butterflies they examined had slightly different scales, but both had ridges running the length of the scale with very small holes on either side that opened up onto an underlying layer.

The steep walls of the ridges help funnel light into the holes, Fan explained. The walls absorb longer wavelengths of light while allowing shorter wavelengths to reach a membrane below the scales. Using the images of the scales, the researchers created computer models to confirm this filtering effect. The nano-hole arrays change from wave guides for short wavelengths to barriers and absorbers for longer wavelengths, which act just like a high-pass filtering layer.

The group used actual butterfly-wing structures to collect sunlight, employing them as templates to synthesize solar-collecting materials. They chose the black wings of the Asian butterfly Papilio helenus Linnaeus, or Red Helen, and transformed them to titanium dioxide by a process known as dip-calcining. Titanium dioxide is used as a catalyst to split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen. Fan’s group paired this butterfly-wing patterned titanium dioxide with platinum nanoparticles to increase its water-splitting power. The butterfly-wing compound catalyst produced hydrogen gas from water at more than twice the rate of the unstructured compound catalyst on its own.

This work was presented at the American Chemical Society’s 243rd annual meeting themed Chemistry of Life  in San Diego, California, March 25-29, 2012.

As I’ve noted previously, although that was specific to Morpho butterflies (my Feb. 14, 2012 posting), butterflies are being very generous with their intellectual property.