Inspiration by Turkey

Bioengineers at the University of California have developed a new type of biosensor that changes color when exposed to chemical vapors. Their inspiration? Turkey skin! Check out the article on Science Daily by clicking here.

They mimicked the way the collagen fibers in turkey skin change color to create easy-to-read bio-inspired sensors made from bacteriophages that can detect toxins or airborne pathogens. When exposed to target chemicals, the collagen-like bundles expand or contract, generating different colors.

The coolest part? There’s an app for that! The researches created a mobile app to be used with camera phones to help analyze the sensor’s color bands.

Spacing between the collagen fibers changes when blood vessels swell or contract, depending on whether the bird is excited or angry, and changes the way light waves are scattered. This alters the colors we see on the birds head.

Like collagen fibers, these phage-bundled nanostructures expanded and contracted, resulting in color changes. The exact mechanism behind it is still unclear, but it’s possible that the small amount of water in the phage is reacting to the chemical vapors.

“In our lab, we study how light is generated and changes in nature, and then we use what we learn to engineer novel devices,” said Seung-Wuk Lee, UC Berkeley associate professor of bioengineering, who  led a research team in mimicking this color-changing ability to create biosensors that can detect volatile chemicals.

“Our system is convenient, and it is cheap to make,” said Lee. “We also showed that this technology can be adapted so that smartphones can help analyze the color fingerprint of the target chemical. In the future, we could potentially use this same technology to create a breath test to detect cancer and other diseases.”

Sensors that give off color readings are understandably easier to read, but major ones in development elsewhere can only detect a limited range of chemicals and can be difficult to make. The biosensors were also able to signal changes in relative humidity, ranging from 20 percent to 90 percent, becoming redder with moister air and bluer with drier air.

Pretty cool, huh? I love it when our world and technology take from nature to create awesome things. I mean, I’m using a zebra print blanket right now! It’s called “biomimicry” and it’s been going on forever, even since Leonardo da Vinci created the plans for a “flying machine” by studying the anatomy and flight of birds.

For some more examples of biomimicry, check out sharkskin inspired swimsuits, the invention of velcro (inspired by burrs sticking to Swiss engineer George de Mestral’s dog in 1941), or how turbines are crafted to work like whale fins at compaines like Whale Power!

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