Tag Archives: squid

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.

Iridescent giant clams could point the way to safety, climatologically speaking

Giant clams in Palau (Cynthia Barnett)

These don’t look like any clams I’ve ever seen but that is the point of Cynthia Barnett’s absorbing Sept. 10, 2018 article for The Atlantic (Note: A link has been removed),

Snorkeling amid the tree-tangled rock islands of Ngermid Bay in the western Pacific nation of Palau, Alison Sweeney lingers at a plunging coral ledge, photographing every giant clam she sees along a 50-meter transect. In Palau, as in few other places in the world, this means she is going to be underwater for a skin-wrinkling long time.

At least the clams are making it easy for Sweeney, a biophysicist at the University of Pennsylvania. The animals plump from their shells like painted lips, shimmering in blues, purples, greens, golds, and even electric browns. The largest are a foot across and radiate from the sea floor, but most are the smallest of the giant clams, five-inch Tridacna crocea, living higher up on the reef. Their fleshy Technicolor smiles beam in all directions from the corals and rocks of Ngermid Bay.

… Some of the corals are bleached from the conditions in Ngermid Bay, where naturally high temperatures and acidity mirror the expected effects of climate change on the global oceans. (Ngermid Bay is more commonly known as “Nikko Bay,” but traditional leaders and government officials are working to revive the indigenous name of Ngermid.)

Even those clams living on bleached corals are pulsing color, like wildflowers in a white-hot desert. Sweeney’s ponytail flows out behind her as she nears them with her camera. They startle back into their fluted shells. Like bashful fairytale creatures cursed with irresistible beauty, they cannot help but draw attention with their sparkly glow.

Barnett makes them seem magical and perhaps they are (Note: A link has been removed),

It’s the glow that drew Sweeney’s attention to giant clams, and to Palau, a tiny republic of more than 300 islands between the Philippines and Guam. Its sun-laden waters are home to seven of the world’s dozen giant-clam species, from the storied Tridacna gigas—which can weigh an estimated 550 pounds and measure over four feet across—to the elegantly fluted Tridacna squamosa. Sweeney first came to the archipelago in 2009, while working on animal iridescence as a post-doctoral fellow at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Whether shimmering from a blue morpho butterfly’s wings or a squid’s skin, iridescence is almost always associated with a visual signal—one used to attract mates or confuse predators. Giant clams’ luminosity is not such a signal. So, what is it?

In the years since, Sweeney and her colleagues have discovered that the clams’ iridescence is essentially the outer glow of a solar transformer—optimized over millions of years to run on sunlight and algal biofuel. Giant clams reach their cartoonish proportions thanks to an exceptional ability to grow their own photosynthetic algae in vertical farms spread throughout their flesh. Sweeney and other scientists think this evolved expertise may shed light on alternative fuel technologies and other industrial solutions for a warming world.

Barnett goes on to describe Palau’s relationship to the clams and the clams’ environment,

Palau’s islands have been inhabited for at least 3,400 years, and from the start, giant clams were a staple of diet, daily life, and even deity. Many of the islands’ oldest-surviving tools are crafted of thick giant-clam shell: arched-blade adzes, fishhooks, gougers, heavy taro-root pounders. Giant-clam shell makes up more than three-fourths of some of the oldest shell middens in Palau, a percentage that decreases through the centuries. Archaeologists suggest that the earliest islanders depleted the giant clams that crowded the crystalline shallows, then may have self-corrected. Ancient Palauan conservation law, known as bul, prohibited fishing during critical spawning periods, or when a species showed signs of over-harvesting.

Before the Christianity that now dominates Palauan religion sailed in on eighteenth-century mission ships, the culture’s creation lore began with a giant clam called to life in an empty sea. The clam grew bigger and bigger until it sired Latmikaik, the mother of human children, who birthed them with the help of storms and ocean currents.

The legend evokes giant clams in their larval phase, moving with the currents for their first two weeks of life. Before they can settle, the swimming larvae must find and ingest one or two photosynthetic alga, which later multiply, becoming self-replicating fuel cells. After the larvae down the alga and develop a wee shell and a foot, they kick around like undersea farmers, looking for a sunny spot for their crop. When they’ve chosen a well-lit home in a shallow lagoon or reef, they affix to the rock, their shell gaping to the sky. After the sun hits and photosynthesis begins, the microalgae will multiply to millions, or in the case of T. gigas, billions, and clam and algae will live in symbiosis for life.

Giant clam is a beloved staple in Palau and many other Pacific islands, prepared raw with lemon, simmered into coconut soup, baked into a savory pancake, or sliced and sautéed in a dozen other ways. But luxury demand for their ivory-like shells and their adductor muscle, which is coveted as high-end sashimi and an alleged aphrodisiac, has driven T. gigas extinct in China, Taiwan, and other parts of their native habitat. Some of the toughest marine-protection laws in the world, along with giant-clam aquaculture pioneered here, have helped Palau’s wild clams survive. The Palau Mariculture Demonstration Center raises hundreds of thousands of giant clams a year, supplying local clam farmers who sell to restaurants and the aquarium trade and keeping pressure off the wild population. But as other nations have wiped out their clams, Palau’s 230,000-square-mile ocean territory is an increasing target of illegal foreign fishers.

Barnett delves into how the country of Palau is responding to the voracious appetite for the giant clams and other marine life,

Palau, drawing on its ancient conservation tradition of bul, is fighting back. In 2015, President Tommy Remengesau Jr. signed into law the Palau National Marine Sanctuary Act, which prohibits fishing in 80 percent of Palau’s Exclusive Economic Zone and creates a domestic fishing area in the remaining 20 percent, set aside for local fishers selling to local markets. In 2016, the nation received a $6.6 million grant from Japan to launch a major renovation of the Palau Mariculture Demonstration Center. Now under construction at the waterfront on the southern tip of Malakal Island, the new facility will amp up clam-aquaculture research and increase giant-clam production five-fold, to more than a million seedlings a year.

Last year, Palau amended its immigration policy to require that all visitors sign a pledge to behave in an ecologically responsible manner. The pledge, stamped into passports by an immigration officer who watches you sign, is written to the island’s children:

Children of Palau, I take this pledge, as your guest, to preserve and protect your beautiful and unique island home. I vow to tread lightly, act kindly and explore mindfully. I shall not take what is not given. I shall not harm what does not harm me. The only footprints I shall leave are those that will wash away.

The pledge is winning hearts and public-relations awards. But Palau’s existential challenge is still the collective “we,” the world’s rising carbon emissions and the resulting upturns in global temperatures, sea levels, and destructive storms.

F. Umiich Sengebau, Palau’s Minister for Natural Resources, Environment, and Tourism, grew up on Koror and is full of giant-clam proverbs, wisdom and legends from his youth. He tells me a story I also heard from an elder in the state of Airai: that in old times, giant clams were known as “stormy-weather food,” the fresh staple that was easy to collect and have on hand when it was too stormy to go out fishing.

As Palau faces the storms of climate change, Sengebau sees giant clams becoming another sort of stormy-weather food, serving as a secure source of protein; a fishing livelihood; a glowing icon for tourists; and now, an inspiration for alternative energy and other low-carbon technologies. “In the old days, clams saved us,” Sengebau tells me. “I think there’s a lot of power in that, a great power and meaning in the history of clams as food, and now clams as science.”

I highly recommend Barnett’s article, which is one article in a larger series, from a November 6, 2017 The Atlantic press release,

The Atlantic is expanding the global footprint of its science writing today with a multi-year series to investigate life in all of its multitudes. The series, “Life Up Close,” created with support from Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education (HHMI), begins today at TheAtlantic.com. In the first piece for the project, “The Zombie Diseases of Climate Change,” The Atlantic’s Robinson Meyer travels to Greenland to report on the potentially dangerous microbes emerging from thawing Arctic permafrost.

The project is ambitious in both scope and geographic reach, and will explore how life is adapting to our changing planet. Journalists will travel the globe to examine these changes as they happen to microbes, plants, and animals in oceans, grasslands, forests, deserts, and the icy poles. The Atlantic will question where humans should look for life next: from the Martian subsurface, to Europa’s oceans, to the atmosphere of nearby stars and beyond. “Life Up Close” will feature at least twenty reported pieces continuing through 2018.

“The Atlantic has been around for 160 years, but that’s a mere pinpoint in history when it comes to questions of life and where it started, and where we’re going,” said Ross Andersen, The Atlantic’s senior editor who oversees science, tech, and health. “The questions that this project will set out to tackle are critical; and this support will allow us to cover new territory in new and more ambitious ways.”

About The Atlantic:
Founded in 1857 and today one of the fastest growing media platforms in the industry, The Atlantic has throughout its history championed the power of big ideas and continues to shape global debate across print, digital, events, and video platforms. With its award-winning digital presence TheAtlantic.com and CityLab.com on cities around the world, The Atlantic is a multimedia forum on the most critical issues of our times—from politics, business, urban affairs, and the economy, to technology, arts, and culture. The Atlantic is celebrating its 160th anniversary this year. Bob Cohn is president of The Atlantic and Jeffrey Goldberg is editor in chief.

About the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Department of Science Education:
HHMI is the leading private nonprofit supporter of scientific research and science education in the United States. The Department of Science Education’s BioInteractive division produces free, high quality educational media for science educators and millions of students around the globe, its HHMI Tangled Bank Studios unit crafts powerful stories of scientific discovery for television and big screens, and its grants program aims to transform science education in universities and colleges. For more information, visit www.hhmi.org.

Getting back to the giant clams, sometimes all you can do is marvel, eh?

Structural color and cephalopods at the University of California Santa Barbara

I last wrote about structural color in a Feb.7, 2013 posting featuring a marvelous article on the topic by Cristina Luiggi in the The Scientist. As for cephalopods, one of my favourite postings on the topic is a Feb. 1, 2013 posting which features the giant squid, a newly discovered animal of mythical proportions that appears golden in its native habitat in the deep, deep ocean. Happily, there’s a July 25, 2013 news item on Nanowerk which combines structural color and squid,

Color in living organisms can be formed two ways: pigmentation or anatomical structure. Structural colors arise from the physical interaction of light with biological nanostructures. A wide range of organisms possess this ability, but the biological mechanisms underlying the process have been poorly understood.

Two years ago, an interdisciplinary team from UC Santa Barbara [University of California Santa Barbara a.k.a. UCSB] discovered the mechanism by which a neurotransmitter dramatically changes color in the common market squid, Doryteuthis opalescens. That neurotransmitter, acetylcholine, sets in motion a cascade of events that culminate in the addition of phosphate groups to a family of unique proteins called reflectins. This process allows the proteins to condense, driving the animal’s color-changing process.

The July 25, 2013 UC Santa Barbara news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides a good overview of the team’s work to date and the new work occasioning the news release,

Now the researchers have delved deeper to uncover the mechanism responsible for the dramatic changes in color used by such creatures as squids and octopuses. The findings –– published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, in a paper by molecular biology graduate student and lead author Daniel DeMartini and co-authors Daniel V. Krogstad and Daniel E. Morse –– are featured in the current issue of The Scientist.

Structural colors rely exclusively on the density and shape of the material rather than its chemical properties. The latest research from the UCSB team shows that specialized cells in the squid skin called iridocytes contain deep pleats or invaginations of the cell membrane extending deep into the body of the cell. This creates layers or lamellae that operate as a tunable Bragg reflector. Bragg reflectors are named after the British father and son team who more than a century ago discovered how periodic structures reflect light in a very regular and predicable manner.

“We know cephalopods use their tunable iridescence for camouflage so that they can control their transparency or in some cases match the background,” said co-author Daniel E. Morse, Wilcox Professor of Biotechnology in the Department of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology and director of the Marine Biotechnology Center/Marine Science Institute at UCSB.

“They also use it to create confusing patterns that disrupt visual recognition by a predator and to coordinate interactions, especially mating, where they change from one appearance to another,” he added. “Some of the cuttlefish, for example, can go from bright red, which means stay away, to zebra-striped, which is an invitation for mating.”

The researchers created antibodies to bind specifically to the reflectin proteins, which revealed that the reflectins are located exclusively inside the lamellae formed by the folds in the cell membrane. They showed that the cascade of events culminating in the condensation of the reflectins causes the osmotic pressure inside the lamellae to change drastically due to the expulsion of water, which shrinks and dehydrates the lamellae and reduces their thickness and spacing. The movement of water was demonstrated directly using deuterium-labeled heavy water.

When the acetylcholine neurotransmitter is washed away and the cell can recover, the lamellae imbibe water, rehydrating and allowing them to swell to their original thickness. This reversible dehydration and rehydration, shrinking and swelling, changes the thickness and spacing, which, in turn, changes the wavelength of the light that’s reflected, thus “tuning” the color change over the entire visible spectrum.

“This effect of the condensation on the reflectins simultaneously increases the refractive index inside the lamellae,” explained Morse. “Initially, before the proteins are consolidated, the refractive index –– you can think of it as the density –– inside the lamellae and outside, which is really the outside water environment, is the same. There’s no optical difference so there’s no reflection. But when the proteins consolidate, this increases the refractive index so the contrast between the inside and outside suddenly increases, causing the stack of lamellae to become reflective, while at the same time they dehydrate and shrink, which causes color changes. The animal can control the extent to which this happens –– it can pick the color –– and it’s also reversible. The precision of this tuning by regulating the nanoscale dimensions of the lamellae is amazing.”

Another paper by the same team of researchers, published in Journal of the Royal Society Interface, with optical physicist Amitabh Ghoshal as the lead author, conducted a mathematical analysis of the color change and confirmed that the changes in refractive index perfectly correspond to the measurements made with live cells.

A third paper, in press at Journal of Experimental Biology, reports the team’s discovery that female market squid show a set of stripes that can be brightly activated and may function during mating to allow the female to mimic the appearance of the male, thereby reducing the number of mating encounters and aggressive contacts from males. The most significant finding in this study is the discovery of a pair of stripes that switch from being completely transparent to bright white.

“This is the first time that switchable white cells based on the reflectin proteins have been discovered,” Morse noted. “The facts that these cells are switchable by the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, that they contain some of the same reflectin proteins, and that the reflectins are induced to condense to increase the refractive index and trigger the change in reflectance all suggest that they operate by a molecular mechanism fundamentally related to that controlling the tunable color.”

Could these findings one day have practical applications? “In telecommunications we’re moving to more rapid communication carried by light,” said Morse. “We already use optical cables and photonic switches in some of our telecommunications devices. The question is –– and it’s a question at this point –– can we learn from these novel biophotonic mechanisms that have evolved over millions of years of natural selection new approaches to making tunable and switchable photonic materials to more efficiently encode, transmit, and decode information via light?”

In fact, the UCSB researchers are collaborating with Raytheon Vision Systems in Goleta to investigate applications of their discoveries in the development of tunable filters and switchable shutters for infrared cameras. Down the road, there may also be possible applications for synthetic camouflage. [emphasis mine]

There is at least one other research team (the UK’s University of Bristol) considering the camouflage strategies employed cephalopods and, in their case,  zebra fish as noted in my May 4, 2012 posting, Camouflage for everyone.

Getting back to cephalopod in hand, here’s an image from the UC Santa Barbara team,

This shows the diffusion of the neurotransmitter applied to squid skin at upper right, which induces a wave of iridescence traveling to the lower left and progressing from red to blue. Each object in the image is a living cell, 10 microns long; the dark object in the center of each cell is the cell nucleus. [downloaded from http://www.ia.ucsb.edu/pa/display.aspx?pkey=3076]

This shows the diffusion of the neurotransmitter applied to squid skin at upper right, which induces a wave of iridescence traveling to the lower left and progressing from red to blue. Each object in the image is a living cell, 10 microns long; the dark object in the center of each cell is the cell nucleus. [downloaded from http://www.ia.ucsb.edu/pa/display.aspx?pkey=3076]

Fro papers currently available online, here are links and citations,

Optical parameters of the tunable Bragg reflectors in squid by Amitabh Ghoshal, Daniel G. DeMartini, Elizabeth Eck, and Daniel E. Morse. doi: 10.1098/​rsif.2013.0386 J. R. Soc. Interface 6 August 2013 vol. 10 no. 85 20130386

The Royal Society paper is behind a paywall until August 2014.

Membrane invaginations facilitate reversible water flux driving tunable iridescence in a dynamic biophotonic system by Daniel G. DeMartini, Daniel V. Krogstadb, and Daniel E. Morse. Published online before print January 28, 2013, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1217260110
PNAS February 12, 2013 vol. 110 no. 7 2552-2556

The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) paper (or the ‘Daniel’ paper as I prefer to think of it)  is behind a paywall.

Nerve endings, iridescence, and camouflage amongst the squid

Iridescence is a magical thing as far as I’m concerned. I know the scientists at the Marine Biology Laboratory (MBL) in Woods Hole, Massachusetts have mundane reasons for studying the iridescence in squid but I detect a hint of the fascination in the description of their work in the Aug. 27, 2012 news item on ScienceDaily,

Squid skin is extraordinary because it has two ways to produce color and pattern. Pigmented organs called chromatophores create patterns with yellow, red, and brown colors. Underneath the pigments, iridophores, aggregations of iridescent cells in the skin, reflect light and add blue, green, and pink colors to the overall appearance of the skin. Collectively these two groups of skin elements can create spectacular optical illusions with patterns of color, brightness, and contrast change.

“For 20 years we have been wondering how the dynamically changeable iridescence is controlled by the squid,” says study co-author Roger Hanlon. “At long last we have clean evidence that there are dedicated nerve fibers that turn on and tune the color and brightness of iridophores. It is not an exaggeration to call this “electric skin.” The complex nerve network distributed throughout the squid’s skin instantly coordinates tens of thousands of chromatophores with iridescent reflectors for rapidly changing behaviors ranging from camouflage to signaling.”

The Aug. 24, 2012 MBL news release, which originated the news item, provides details about the study,

Working with longfin inshore squid (Doryteuthis pealeii), the researchers took a new approach to investigating the mystery behind the iridophore control mechanism.  By tracing a highly branched network of nerves and stimulating them electrically, they found that they could activate progressive color shifts from red and orange to yellow, green, and blue in just 15 seconds. The findings suggest that the specific color of each iridophore, as well as speed of change, is controlled by the nervous system, as is spatial chromatophore patterning that occurs in the skin layer just above.

The scientists have provided some images to illustrate the process,

Nerves in red can be easily traced among the distinctive chromatophores and iridophores that they innervate. (Credit: Wardill, Gonzalez-Bellido, Crook & Hanlon, Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences)

Neurally stimulated squid iridophore. (Credit: Wardill, Gonzalez-Bellido, Crook & Hanlon, Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences)

They’ve also created a brief, silent video showing the process of becoming iridescent in action,

What I found particularly interesting about iridescence and colour  in squid was this (from the Aug. 24, news release),

How squid choose and hold particular skin colors to help camouflage themselves remains unknown and is particularly interesting because the animals are completely colorblind.

For anyone interested in reading the study, here’s the citation from the ScienceDaily news item,

T. J. Wardill, P. T. Gonzalez-Bellido, R. J. Crook, R. T. Hanlon. Neural control of tuneable skin iridescence in squid. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 2012; DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2012.1374

The article is behind a paywall.

ETA Aug. 28, 2012 1:15 pm PDT: I forgot to mention the ‘camouflage’ part of the headline in the context of this story. The ability to change colour in response to stimulae of one sort of another is often for the purpose of camouflage/concealment, a matter of some interest to the military. In this case (from the Aug. 24, 2012 news release),

The work was funded by grants from the Office of Naval Research (ONR), Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and Air Force Office of Scientific Research.

I last wrote about squid and camouflage in my Aug. 17, 2012 posting on soft robots.

Camouflage for everyone

The Institute of Physics (IOP) journal, Bioinspiration and BIomimetics, has published an open access article on camouflage inspired by zebrafish and squid. From the IOP’s May 2, 2012 news release

Researchers from the University of Bristol have created artificial muscles that can be transformed at the flick of a switch to mimic the remarkable camouflaging abilities of organisms such as squid and zebrafish.

They demonstrate two individual transforming mechanisms that they believe could be used in ‘smart clothing’ to trigger camouflaging tricks similar to those seen in nature.

The soft, stretchy, artificial muscles are based on specialist cells called chromatophores that are found in amphibians, fish, reptiles and cephalopods, and contain pigments of colours that are responsible for the animals’ remarkable colour-changing effects.

Here’s the video mentioned in the IOP’s May 2, 2012 news release,

The lead author Jonathan Rossiter provides a description of the work (which may help you better understand what you’re seeing on the video), from the May 2, 2012 news item,

Two types of artificial chromatophores were created in the study: the first based on a mechanism adopted by a squid and the second based on a rather different mechanism adopted by zebrafish.

A typical colour-changing cell in a squid has a central sac containing granules of pigment. The sac is surrounded by a series of muscles and when the cell is ready to change colour, the brain sends a signal to the muscles and they contract. The contracting muscles make the central sacs expand, generating the optical effect which makes the squid look like it is changing colour.

The fast expansion of these muscles was mimicked using dielectric elastomers (DEs) – smart materials, usually made of a polymer, which are connected to an electric circuit and expand when a voltage is applied. They return to their original shape when they are short circuited.

In contrast, the cells in the zebrafish contain a small reservoir of black pigmented fluid that, when activated, travels to the skin surface and spreads out, much like the spilling of black ink. The natural dark spots on the surface of the zebrafish therefore appear to get bigger and the desired optical effect is achieved. The changes are usually driven by hormones.

The zebrafish cells were mimicked using two glass microscope slides sandwiching a silicone layer. Two pumps, made from flexible DEs, were positioned on both sides of the slide and were connected to the central system with silicone tubes; one pumping opaque white spirit, the other a mixture of black ink and water.

“Our artificial chromatophores are both scalable and adaptable and can be made into an artificial compliant skin which can stretch and deform, yet still operate effectively. This means they can be used in many environments where conventional ‘hard’ technologies would be dangerous, for example at the physical interface with humans, such as smart clothing,” continued Rossiter.

I wonder what these smart clothes/smart skin would feel like against your personal skin given that we are talking about ‘artificial muscles’. For example, how much movement would your clothing/smart skin have independent of you?

By independent, I mean that everything occurs externally. While we’re not ordinarily conscious of all our physical responses they are stimulated internally and part of a whole body response (even though we may notice only localized responses, e.g., a rash). In the research, there’s an external stimulus and an external response via smart clothes/smart skin.

This is just speculation as I imagine we’re several years away from any field testing of these smart clothes/smart skin, assuming that scientists are able to address all the technical hurdles between a laboratory breakthrough and developing applications.

Thanks to Nanowerk where I first came across this information (May 2, 2012 news item).