Granite Geek: A Material That Changes Color Like an Octopus

Apr 19, 2016

If you’ve ever wanted to change the color of something—your car, a wall in your dining room, or even your shirt—you may have wished that you could just snap your fingers and voila, you’ve got a new color. It’s a skill that cephalopods like squid and octopuses have already mastered. Now some scientists are studying this ability in squid so they can learn how to make materials and fabrics change color in the blink of an eye. David Brooks, a reporter for The Concord Monitor and writer at GraniteGeek.org, spoke with NHPR's Peter Biello.

So I’ve got on this purple striped shirt right now…but if these scientists at UNH figure out how to make fabric change color the way a squid can, I can just push a button maybe or change a setting and—bam, I’ve got a red shirt. It sounds like an incredible kind of technology.

Well, that’s the idea. That’s the long-range commercial application. I suspect fabric will actually not be the first thing where it’s applied. You mentioned your wall, or maybe even your car. Paint might be a little hard, too. Biomimicry—this is a classic example of [it]. You have an engineering problem and nature has solved it, so let’s look at what nature does and use what has evolved over millions of years to figure out how we can do it.

How does the squid change its color so rapidly?

They have these tiny blobs—that’s not the technical term—of pigment. I mean, we’re talking at the microscopic scale. In fact, some of this goes down to the nano scale and even a lot of the work is being done at the molecular level. And they have these various blobs of color, of pigment, that are inside cells, and the cells can be physically manipulated in such a way that some of the blobs are visible and some other ones aren’t. At my level of understanding, that’s pretty much what they do.

So they have zillions of these all over their skin, and what they do is they’re able take information about the environment and use it to physically manipulate these cells to make different pigments available and therefore change the color of their skin. You’ve seen this stuff on Youtube, particularly with cuttlefish and octopuses, which are of course relatives of the squid and which are better at this than squid are. They’re great. Go to Youtube if you’re bored and take a look.

We’ll put a link at NHPR.org from a public television station that shows these little blobs. They look a little like an impressionist painting. The dabs of paint sort of expand and contract.

Pointillism come to life—if you want to be all artsy here. So I’ve only learned about this because of research being done at UNH, a team led by Leila Deravi, a professor at UNH. And what they’re doing and what you have to do with biomimicry, as she explained it to me, if you want to understand what’s happening in nature, you really gotta understand it. You’ve got to be very reductionist. You’ve got to tear apart all the different components to understand the separate components.

This paper was talking about how the pigments work in squid because there’s a lot of them off the New England coast and because they don’t do it quite as complicatedly as cuttlefish and octopuses. So they’ve been looking at the pigments and how they behave and what’s happening at the molecular level to see if that could then be applied at the engineering level by humans.

And they’re thinking of trying to make it work by using electricity.

Yeah, so we’re talking about organic semi-conductors, actually, so silicon semi-conductors in your computer and organic ones, which are carbon-based compounds…basically, they’re moving electrons up and down between energy levels, and that’s what’s making all the magic happen, and that’s what’s also happening on the squid’s skin. So if you can understand that better, you’ll know how to it—you might know how to do it with a material, like you said, with a wall.

When do scientists expect to have a product ready for the market?

A week from Tuesday. No, no. So I asked the professor this and they never like predicting, but she said she wouldn’t be surprised if there was some kind of commercial application within five years. Which isn’t bad at all. This is very deep research they’re doing right now, very much the underpinnings of how it works. This is not, you know, we’re figuring out which wires to stick together.

Early, early stages.

Early, early, but you know, if you don’t do the early stages, you’re not going to make the later stages work. That’s why we have tax-payer supported universities, to do the early-stage research.