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Butterfly Wings Become Design Templates

butterfly wing scales.jpg

A team in China has succeeded in making metallic butterfly wings — not from scratch, or by imitation, but by actually depositing metal onto the wings and removing the original organic substance. This technique not only promises interesting optical materials; it assumes a good design is worth copying.

We earlier described how precise geometric patterns on butterfly wings produce brilliant colors. These patterns, called photonic crystals, are highly desirable in a number of human applications. But attempts to fabricate the patterns at nanoscopic scales have proven difficult.

A news item from Nature on August 4 featured the work of the Chinese team. “The tiny scales that lend colour and texture to a butterfly’s wings can be used as organic templates to make metallic nanostructures,” the summary began. (See the Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) images of butterfly wing scales above, shown at 4 magnifications. Courtesy Illustra Media.)

Jiajun Gu, Di Zhang and their colleagues at Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China first added gold nanoparticles to the surface of the wing scales, which are made from the tough polysaccharide chitin. They then deposited a metallic coating on the structures before removing the organic material. The large variety of butterfly-wing morphologies means that every butterfly bears scales of different shapes and size.

The team succeeded with seven common metals, Nature reported: “With almost 175,000 species of butterfly and moth to choose from, materials scientists could generate a wealth of intact, three-dimensional shapes with submicrometre resolution.”
The paper was published in Angewandte Chemie (Wiley Online Library) on July 21. The summary stated, “This approach converts complicated natural 3D bioorganic structures into various otherwise unavailable 


metal structures with optical, electronic, magnetic, thermal, or catalytic applications.” We can look forward to amazing color-changing materials in days ahead, thanks to the design in butterfly wings.

Implicit in these efforts is the assumption that natural designs are good and useful. “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” it is often said. But in this case, who is being imitated and flattered? The butterfly? No insect has the capacity to plan out its photonic crystals, wings, antennae, compound eyes or other elaborate structures. Much less does natural selection or any other unguided natural process have such a power.

Designs with functions as effective and beautiful as a flashing butterfly wing point to a designing intelligence that understands both function and beauty that other designing intelligences would appreciate and would wish to imitate.

To learn more about butterflies and the evidence they reveal for intelligent design, visit

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