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Scientists grow butterfly wings in lab; discovery may lead to paints that don't fade

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Using embryonic wing scales, Professor Andrew Parker from the London's Natural History Museum was able to grow the wing of a blue morpho, a butterfly characterized by blue, metallic wings, in his lab.

Butterfly wings have lasting iridescence and this has stumped scientists for years. But with Parker's breakthrough work, the scientific community has gained deeper insight into what imparts such stunning appearances to butterfly wings.

"Conventional pigments work by absorbing some wavelengths of light and scattering others. But the wings of the blue morpho contain transparent structures that refract light in a way that gives it its vivid coloration," explained Parker.

By growing a blue morpho's wing, Parker hoped to find a way of recreating the structures in the butterfly's wing that act as tiny prisms and split light into different colors. In fact, butterfly wings are actually transparent. But these structures and prisms reflect light, and that's what makes butterfly wings appear rich in color.

Parker adds that not only do the structures reflect light to achieve breathtaking colors but they last a long time as well, citing the discovery of 49-million-year-old beetles (they have the same prism-like structures as butterflies) that are still the same color as when they had died.

However, these prism-like structures are hard to recreate even with advanced tools and technology available because they are simply far too intricate. Scientists realized that animals are naturally adept at creating these structures and this led Parker to trying to culture living cells that will grow on to become butterfly wings. The attempt took a few years but he and his colleagues have succeeded in replicating a butterfly wing from cultured living cells.

This is the first time that scientists have been able to recreate the structures in a lab setting and now are gearing up to expand the process, producing large enough quantities that can be utilized for commercial purposes.

If scientists were able to reproduce what allowed a beetle to retain its color for 49 million years, this opens up the possibility for paints that don't fade.

"This is only the beginning, but now that we understand the structure we could start to tweak it to get a different optical effect," said Parker. Butterfly genome can even be changed to specify what kind of colored cells has to be grown.

Parker's work with the blue morpho wing was published in the Bioinspired, Biomimetic and Nanobiomaterials journal.

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