Posts Tagged ‘Biophotonics’

Optics, Self-Assembly, and Evolution of Aperiodic Color Producing Structures from Birds and Insects

October 15, 2011 1 comment

Richard Prum, Yale.

“I know what you are! You are a bird-watcher in q-space!”

When we think of colors in nature, the things that comes to mind are pigments and dyes. However, nature makes extensive use of nano structures to produce the vibrant hues that captivate us. These structural colors make use of interference patterns of light and hence depends on the angle of observation, unlike those produced by pigments. This is known as Iridescence. In most birds these are made by melanin-keratin nano-structures in feather barbules.

The structures are periodic in 1D, 2D or less commonly, 3D.

Velvet Asity

The male Velvet Asity, or Philepitta castanea, produces the brilliant green and blue colors from by the hexagonal array of parallel collagen fibers in its caruncle tissue. Since this is periodic, we can use Bragg’s law to describe the interference.


But in some birds quasi-ordered arrays were found. A simple description using Bragg’s law would no longer work. This was found in mammals too, like the vervet monkey.


The speaker presented a 2D fourier analysis of spatial variation in the refractive index of the feather barb of Cotinga Maynana. The colors are non-iridescent under diffusive light illumination like in nature, but iridescent under artificial directional lighting often used in the laboratory.

There also exist  channel-type nanostructures consisting of beta-keratin bars and air channels in elongate and tortuous forms. Sphere-type nanostructures consist of spherical air cavities in a beta-keratin matrix.

Q. How does spongy medullary keratin self-assemble?

A. Phase separation by Spinodal decomposition (SD)


SD is an unstable phase separation. Phase separation in spongy cells is “arrested” at a specific size to produce a specific color.

Phase separation in 3D is seen in butterflies, which get their colors from mathematical objects called gyroids.

A gyroid is a minimal surface, meaning its mean curvature vanishes. Minimal surfaces include, but are not limited to, surfaces of minimum area subject to various constraints.  The planes of a gyroid’s surface never intersect. Gyroids also contain no straight lines, and can never be divided into symmetrical parts

In butterflies this is formed by hydrophilic-hydrophobic interactions in copolymers.


Further readings and references :