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Chemistry In Pictures

Chemistry in Pictures: Bugs make buckyballs

by Fionna Samuels
March 23, 2024


A grey scale image of Bucky-ball-like structures called brochosomes. Their holes are imperfect and not spaced completely uniformly. The scale bar is 200 nm and the structures are about 600 nm.
Credit: Lin Wang and Tak-Sing Wong

Since brochosomes were first discovered coating leafhoppers’ exoskeleton, their unique buckyball shape has puzzled scientists. Why expend precious energy to make such trypophobia-inducing structures (let’s call them “buggy-balls”) like those in the SEM image above? To find an answer, a team at Pennsylvania State University led by Tak-Sing Wong replicated the hollow particles using a specialized 3D printer. Although the synthetic versions (below) are about 50 times larger than their natural counterparts, the team was able to use their homemade buggy-balls to determine how the structures interact with light and infer why insects would make something so complex.

It comes down to scattering and absorbing light. The size of natural brochosomes diffuses visible light, making the bug look dull. But the holes are the real novelty. Their size only allows ultraviolet light into the balls’ center cavities. In there, the light bounces around, trapped. Because matte leaves also absorb a lot of UV light, the buggy-balls allow leafhoppers to blend in to their home, avoiding predators that can see both visible and UV light.

A grey scale image of synthetic brochosomes, Bucky-ball-like structures. These are very uniform and have a slight texture on them. The scale bar is 5 microns and the structure is about 20 mircons.
Credit: Lin Wang and Tak-Sing Wong

Credit: Lin Wang and Tak-Sing Wong. Read their full analysis of the bug-made buckyballs in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2312700121

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This story was updated on March 28, 2024, to correct the name of the journal that the new paper was published in. The journal is Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, not Proclamations of the National Academy of Science.


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