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Nanoscale "Design" in Nature -- Rightly Designated by Discover Magazine

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Discover Magazine has a beautiful gallery up, illustrating the ways nature's designs "discovered" striking instances of nanotechnology long before human beings got there. In the photo above, that's a diminutive fairy penguin from Australia and New Zealand (Eudyptula minor) whose shimmering blue coat "harness[es] nanotech for cosmetic purposes" by bringing to bear "nanoscale design" (emphasis added). Some careless copyeditor is going to get a reproachful memo from her supervisor for allowing that word into the accompanying text.

Citing an article on the subject in Biology Letters ("Colour-producing β-keratin nanofibres in blue penguin (Eudyptula minor) feathers"), Discover explains:

Last year, scientists at the University of Akron in Ohio used X-ray imaging and other techniques to discover that the penguins produce the blue color in an entirely new way: with bundles of parallel nanofibers, like handfuls of uncooked spaghetti, that scatter light so as to produce the rich blue. The 180-nanometer-wide fibers are made of beta-keratin, a protein similar to the one in human hair. Similar fibers had previously been found in some birds' blue skin, where they are made of collagen rather than keratin, but never before in blue feathers.
Others examples from the gallery include how the "nanoscale nipple pattern on moth eyes has inspired new anti-reflective coatings for solar cells," scientists learning from nanostructures in butterfly wings "to make hypersensitive thermal imaging sensors, useful for night vision," Israeli researchers getting inspiration and instruction from the exoskeleton of the oriental hornet that includes nanostructures forming a "solar cell, harvesting light energy that could power the hornet's work," and more.

Photo credit: Moon Fish/Flickr.