If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, humans have been buttering up the natural world for a long time. It’s often called biomimicry. Think Olympic swimmers in sharkskin-inspired suits, bullet trains shaped like kingfisher beaks, or the ubiquitous Velcro, which was famously modeled after plant burrs.
Yet all of these examples depend on man-made materials and processes. What if we took biomimicry one step further and learned how to grow structures the way they grow in nature?
Dr. Nipam Patel, a professor in the Department of Integrative Biology and the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology at Berkeley, uses his lab to study how butterflies grow their wings. He and his team are particularly interested in structural color, or color created by refracted light instead of pigment. Blue morpho butterflies, perhaps the most famous example of structural color, have bright, iridescent blue wings but contain no blue pigment. Instead, their wings are covered in tiny scales made up of Christmas tree-shaped structures that bend the light to make it appear blue to our eyes.
“Optical physicists have studied this for a long time and they’ve really done a really nice job of understanding it right down to the math of what’s going on,” Patel explained. But his lab is approaching this research from a different angle. “What we’re interested in is how this works at the cell and developmental level. So how does an animal actually make something like this? And we know pretty much zero about that.”
To learn more, Patel’s lab has been studying butterflies that are native to California, predominantly buckeyes and swallowtails. They’re using the buckeyes to map where the genes that control scale thickness are located and the swallowtails to investigate how modifying scale shapes and patterns can change wing color. They’re also researching how some butterflies achieve transparent wings.