ScienceShot: The Brilliant Wings of Butterflies

14 June 2010 3:00 pm

Call it the "butterfly effect." The insects owe their brilliant looks to photonic nanostructures—crystalline structures in their wings that reflect light and repeat on the order of every few nanometers—and now scientists think that they have figured out how these structures create such vivid colors. As a butterfly's wings develop in the larval stage, so-called scale cells die, leaving behind a hard substance known as chitin in a specific gyroid configuration. Single gyroids reflect almost all of the light that hits them, but only certain colors are reflected in butterfly wings because of the way the chitin molecules are arranged, researchers report online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Engineers might be able to capitalize on these unique light reflecting properties of single gyroids to produce more efficient solar cells and even new cosmetics and paints.

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