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posted by hubie on Sunday March 24, @07:44AM   Printer-friendly

Leafhoppers, a common backyard insect, secrete and coat themselves in tiny mysterious particles that could provide both the inspiration and the instructions for next-generation technology, according to a new study led by Penn State researchers.

In a first, the team precisely replicated the complex geometry of these particles, called brochosomes, and elucidated a better understanding of how they absorb both visible and ultraviolet light.

This could allow the development of bioinspired optical materials with possible applications ranging from invisible cloaking devices to coatings to more efficiently harvest solar energy, said Tak-Sing Wong, professor of mechanical engineering and biomedical engineering. Wong led the study, which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The unique, tiny particles have an unusual soccer ball-like geometry with cavities, and their exact purpose for the insects has been something of a mystery to scientists since the 1950s. In 2017, Wong led the Penn State research team that was the first to create a basic, synthetic version of brochosomes in an effort to better understand their function.
"It has been unclear why the leafhoppers produce particles with such complex structures," Wang said, "We managed to make these brochosomes using a high-tech 3D-printing method in the lab. We found that these lab-made particles can reduce light reflection by up to 94%. This is a big discovery because it's the first time we've seen nature do something like this, where it controls light in such a specific way using hollow particles."

Theories on why leafhoppers coat themselves with a brochosome armor have ranged from keeping them free of contaminants and water to a superhero-like invisibility cloak. However, a new understanding of their geometry raises a strong possibility that its main purpose could be the cloak to avoid predators, according to Tak-Sing Wong, professor of mechanical engineering and biomedical engineering and corresponding author of the study.

The researchers have found that the size of the holes in the brochosome that give it a hollow, soccer ball-like appearance is extremely important. The size is consistent across leafhopper species, no matter the size of the insect's body. The brochosomes are roughly 600 nanometers in diameter—about half the size of a single bacterium—and the brochosome pores are around 200 nanometers.

"That makes us ask a question," Wong said. "Why this consistency? What is the secret of having brochosomes of about 600 nanometers with about 200-nanometer pores? Does that serve some purpose?"

The researchers found the unique design of brochosomes serves a dual purpose—absorbing ultraviolet (UV) light, which reduces visibility to predators with UV vision, such as birds and reptiles, and scattering visible light, creating an anti-reflective shield against potential threats. The size of the holes is perfect for absorbing light at the ultraviolet frequency.

Journal Reference:
Wong, Tak-Sing, Geometric design of antireflective leafhopper brochosomes, PNAS (2024). DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2312700121

Original Submission

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  • (Score: 2, Interesting) by Anonymous Coward on Sunday March 24, @01:34PM

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday March 24, @01:34PM (#1350092)
    If it absorbs more UV than the plant/leaf does it might actually be more noticeable.

    Is the absorption also consistent across the different species? Because the different species can hang out on different plants with different UV reflectance.

    For example if a particular family of insect are black to better blend with black plants the camouflage reason is plausible if the different species all hang out on black plants. But camouflage is less likely a reason if different species hang out on plants that aren't black. But if the insects are varying shades of grey and the plants are matching shades of grey then camouflage is plausible.

    If camouflage isn't likely then might be more for protection from UV.
  • (Score: 2) by srobert on Monday March 25, @01:57AM

    by srobert (4803) on Monday March 25, @01:57AM (#1350191)

    I'm really tired now. I read that as:

    "Backyard Incest Inspires Invisibility Devices,...".
    What? OK. I guess invisibility would be advisable during that activity. Yeah, I can see that.