“Our system is convenient, and it is cheap to make”
Some may think of turkeys as good for just lunch meat and holiday meals, but bioengineers at UC Berkeley saw inspiration in the big birds for a new type of biosensor that changes color when exposed to chemical vapors. This feature makes the sensors valuable detectors of toxins or airborne pathogens.
Turkey skin, it turns out, can shift from red to blue to white, thanks to bundles of collagen that are interspersed with a dense array of blood vessels. It is this color-shifting characteristic that gives turkeys the name “seven-faced birds” in Japanese and Korean.
The researchers say that spacing between the collagen fibers changes when the blood vessels swell or contract, depending upon whether the bird is excited or angry. The amount of swelling changes the way light waves are scattered and, in turn, alters the colors we see on the bird’s head.
Seung-Wuk Lee, UC Berkeley associate professor of bioengineering, led a research team in mimicking this color-changing ability to create biosensors that can detect volatile chemicals.
“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 Lee, who is also a faculty scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
The researchers created a mobile app, the iColour Analyser, to show that a smartphone photo of the sensor’s color bands could be used to help identify chemicals of interest, such as vapor of the explosive TNT. They described their experiments in a study published today (Tuesday, Jan. 21) in the journal Nature Communications.
Sensors that give off color readings are easier to use and read than conventional biosensors. However, the major color-based sensors in development elsewhere can only detect a limited range of chemicals and, according to the researchers, they can be very difficult to manufacture.
“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.”
In copying this turkey-skin design, Lee and his team employed a technique they pioneered to mimic nanostructures like collagen fibers. The researchers found a way to get M13 bacteriophages, benign viruses with a shape that closely resembles collagen fibers, to self-assemble into patterns that could be easily fine-tuned.
The researchers found that, like collagen fibers, these phage-bundled nanostructures expanded and contracted, resulting in color changes. The exact mechanism behind the shrinking or expanding phage bundles is still unclear, but it’s possible that the small amount of water in the phage is reacting to the chemical vapors, the researchers said.
The turkey-inspired biosensors were exposed to a range of volatile organic compounds, including hexane, isopropyl alcohol and methanol, as well as TNT, at concentrations of 300 parts per billion. The researchers found that the viruses swelled rapidly, resulting in specific color patterns that served as “fingerprints” to distinguish the different chemicals tested.