Biomimicry and the Mesmerizing Colors of Blue Tarantulas

Greenbottle blue tarantula (Creative Commons)

Biomimicry is an approach to technology and innovation that focuses on emulating the natural world and applying observations to manmade creations. It’s an approach that asks nature how it would solve problems and often times, nature answers in ways that become permanent imprints on our daily lives. Velcro, bullet trains, water filters, and even wind turbines have all been inspired by both mundane and extraordinary natural occurrences.

One area of research in biomimicry has been uncovering the nature of the vibrant blue color of some species of tarantulas. Instead of using pigments, the mesmerizing hues are created by nanostructures on the spider’s exoskeleton. We recently interviewed Bor-Kai Hsiung, a fifth year PhD student at the University of Akron, who published his research after running a successful Experiment campaign.


Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

My name is Bor-Kai Hsiung. I am from Taiwan. I’m doing my PhD here at the University of Akron with a Biomimicry Fellowship. I’m in fifth year, so this is the last year of my PhD program.

How did you get interested in science?

I have always been interested in science. My interest was cultivated from when I was really young, like in elementary school. My parents provided me with a lot of reading material that is related to science, so I got interested in science that way. Of course, like most children, I started to get interested in dinosaurs at that point.

I did a term paper or report in junior high just introducing dinosaurs. My biology teacher said I produced a very good report and he saw my potential in Biology. I think this event really directed my future career.

Could you tell me about your first research experience?

Yeah. That’s actually a pretty long time ago. I changed my research area a couple of times. In the very beginning I was majoring in chemistry. The first time I worked in a lab was several years after Jurassic Park came out in theaters. I was captivated by the genetic engineering technology and biotechnology. I worked in the biochemistry and biology department and we just used gene-editing technology to try to manipulate some of the enzymes and tried to make them more applicable for industrial applications. After that, I kept moving towards biology, so starting from very small molecules like DNA and enzymes, I went to more cellular, tissue levels several years later. I did tissue culturing. I dissected mice to study neuro-degeneration disease. When I came here to do my PhD research as a Biomimicry Fellow the scale of the subjects I was working with became whole organisms. I studied the evolution aspect of it and the whole ecological aspect of it. I went from very small micro-molecular aspects of biology to a whole systematic thinking approach.

The color-producing mechanism, even though it involves the whole organism and ecology, is also a mechanism for signals so it’s a ecological aspect. The structure itself, the photonic nanostructure, is actually pretty small. I kind of went from this small scale to the whole holistic approach, but then still focusing on small structures. That was an interesting move.

That’s great. For people who might just be viewing your interview and might not be familiar with your campaign, can you just briefly describe your project?

In nature there are two different ways to produce colors.

The first way is what we already use as humans — ink. Our products are pigmentation.

There is another way to produce color without pigment by using nanostructures that can interact with light. These nanostructures produce an optical illusion. Some of the most famous example are the blue Morpho butterfly wings or peacock feathers.

Blue Morpho Butterflies (Creative Commons)

Our research is in this field, but we study spiders. People don’t observe spiders carefully, probably because many people are scared of them. People may not be aware that some of the spiders are actually really colorful. We observe this structure that can produce color, very much like a pigment, so the colors that you observe won’t change when you look at the structures from different directions. Usually, colors that shows from these nanostructures will change very drastically when you look at it from different directions.

The structure that we observe in the tarantula, they just stay the same hue, much like a pigment. We think this is an opportunity. If we can replicate this structure synthetically, and maybe we’re able to mass-produce it in the future, then we can actually invent a new kind of material that is more durable and non-toxic and vibrant than pigment. This product would also be more environmentally friendly. Using the nanostructures, we can tune any color that we want in our human visual spectrum. It is not like pigment that can only produce one kind of color, in order to get different colors, you need to use different molecular structures for the pigment. Using nanostructures we can just fine-tune the structures and get the whole other color. It’s a very versatile and environmentally friendly technology that we believe in, so that’s why we did the campaign for this research.

Can you tell me a bit more about the campaign that you ran on Experiment?

Running a campaign came as a coincidence and it was also very good timing. We had this project that we already published. We knew that we are going to try to fabricate some of those nanostructures, but we are still trying to decide on how.

One way to finish the project was to collaborate with a professor in another university. He said in order to do that, they need an independent post-doc dedicated to this project for one whole year. We thought that was too long and too much of an up front commitment. We were looking for a quicker way to do this project involving a lower monetary investment.

Looking into it we found a 3-D nano printer that could do this work. I contacted the university with the instrument and found another lab to collaborate. We got about 60% of the funds that we needed already in place, but then we needed the remaining 40%.

One of my P.I.’s (Principal Investigators), Dr. Todd Blackledge, got an email either from Dr. Nathan Morehouse in University of Pennsylvania or from his student Daniel Zurek, explaining how he used the Experiment to fund his jumping spiders research.

Nice.

My P.I. talked them and found it was both a good fit for the timing and also the scale of the money that we can raise. Based on past successful stories, he also thought our research might have a broader interest because it can connect to everyday problems which is easier to explain than more basic research. We thought it might be a good approach to just try.

I saw you posted a lab note about this. What were some of the most difficult things that you had to do, and what were some of the most rewarding things?

The most difficult thing is definitely building internet awareness. You need to actively reach out to a lot of people you know personally or reach out to people through social media or some other broader network that I use a lot. And of course you need to reach out to immediate friends and family. You need to keep doing this, so that’s the most difficult part.

The most rewarding part is also about that is when you find that there are actually people that backed that the project that you don’t know. You don’t know where they come from or you don’t really know them, but they donated to your project. Then you meet one of those backers at a professional conference, and then they talk about it your project. That’s the most rewarding part.

I read in a lot of the articles that you’ve been featured in and there’s also talk about this kind of technology or this kind of structure being used in TV screens and computer screens. Could you talk a little bit about that?

There is already a kind of screen uses this reflective type of technology called Mirasol display. It was developed under Qualcomm. They started around 2005 and developed it for almost 10 years. They said they would have the product out in the market soon, but they had some difficulties when trying to push that technology into the market, into the mainstream. The technology is still there and anyone who wants to use that technology can to license it from Qualcomm.

Marisol Display (Creative Commons)

Their technology uses the same principle. It is reflective nanostructures that can produce color much like e-ink technology they’re using in Kindle, but it is color, not just black and white. You can say it’s a color e-ink technology. One of their disadvantages is the viewing angle is really limited, because of the intrinsic iridescent property of those reflective nanostructures. I saw those commercial products first-hand in person during about 2013, and it seemed the the greatest obstacle to prevent it entering the mainstream is the viewing angle. The color just changes too much once you don’t look at it upright. If with our structure we can find a way to fine-tune it changing color dynamically, and then we can use it in e-ink display with wider angle e-ink display. Right now those structures are static, so they can only produce one color, but if we can either find way to trim the thickness dynamically or build a pixel we could do a similar thing, and use our technology in displays. We need much longer development and we are not there yet.

I know you mentioned that a lot of times spider aren’t studied as closely because a lot of people are scared of them. Were you scared of spiders or did you have to get over a phobia, or did you always kind of like them?

I wasn’t afraid of spiders, but I wasn’t a fan of them either. I came in at a neutral position. When I came in to do research in spiders, I thought I would study spider silk, the material property of spider silk, so I thought I wouldn’t need to work living spiders. Then, after that my topic got changed to the color mechanism, so I do needed to work with some of those spiders. I need to handle the spiders sometimes. When I got to know more and more about the spiders I became more and more fascinated by them. You start to understand their behavior, so you know what to do and what not to do. Working with them is pretty safe if you have enough knowledge. Their behavior is so diverse. It is very interesting. Yeah, there’s just tons of interesting things to talk about with person who isn’t aware of the characteristics of spiders. Some people say that the arachnophobia is like a fear in our genes, but for most people it’s just the way you learn about them and some of the cultural effects are probably more important than genes. For a lot of people, if they understand the spiders more, the fear can totally be erased.

The last question, which might be the most difficult question: what advice would you give to your younger self?

One piece of advice I would give my younger self and fresh PhD students is don’t be afraid of change or step out of your own comfort zone. Once you learn from that technique, you may feel safer staying within the similar techniques studying the similar topics. That might not be the best approach, or it might not be the most helpful or the most productive way approach. I know some of the PhD students choose a project just because of their adviser, but they themselves, they are not personally passionate about it. That gives PhD students difficulties later on when they’re trying to develop their own research. I suggest that once they have that kind of feeling of uneasiness, don’t be afraid to change. Don’t be afraid to switch labs or switch to a totally different research field, as long as it’s something they are really personally passionate about.

This is my piece of advice because I went through these different stages. I really found that no matter what, if you choose a topic yourself, even if it is not the topic that you always dreamed about, you will find a way to connect it to you personally and feel personal interest and passion around it the topic. If you have that personal passion for your PhD it will go very well.


Bor-Kai raised $7,708 from 253 individual backers in April 2016. His team’s research results were published in the peer-reviewed journal Advanced Optical Materials in the October 2016 issue.

Interested in learning more about research on arachnids? Back one of the 9 projects in the Arachnid Challenge! The project with the most backers will receive an additional $500 prize on Wednesday, October 26th at 6PM ET.