What does it mean to be blue? Let’s look deep into something called structural coloration, the physics of light, and how it’s possible that the Morpho butterfly’s wings appear to be blue, despite their containing no blue pigment at all.

The secret: Each of the wing’s scales is a “huge” cell that can bend and reflect light. Grad student Ryan Null from UC Berkeley’s Patel Lab explains why this is not only fascinating, but useful:

“They appear to be the basic components of all animal cells. The genetic program controlling the creation of the nanostructures is elegant, robust and done in a way that is not hazardous to the life of the animal. If we can figure out how the butterflies do what they do, we have the potential to apply what we learn to a vast array of problems like creating cars that have their “paint” grown from the surface of their sheet metal, vivid cosmetics that are inherently safe for use with minimal testing, and even making solar cells more efficient.”

KQED Science shares research being done at UC Berkeley at the nanoscale — nanometers are one billionth of a meter — in this episode of Deep Look: What Gives the Morpho Butterfly Its Magnificent Blue?

Related listening on NPR: How Animals Hacked The Rainbow And Got Stumped On Blue. Related watching on this site includes more iridescence and previous blue morpho work at UC Berkeley: Zoom into a Blue Morpho Butterfly, and How Biomimicry is Inspiring Human Innovation.

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