Scientists Study Butterflies’ Ability to Suck Wide Range of Liquids for Applications to Fluidics Advances

New discoveries about how butterflies feed could help engineers develop tiny probes that siphon liquid out of single cells for a wide range of medical tests and treatments, according to Clemson University researchers. The National Science Foundation recently awarded the project $696,514. It was the foundation’s third grant to the project, bringing the total since 2009 to more than $3 million. The research has brought together Clemson’s materials scientists and biologists who have been focusing on the proboscis (see image), the mouthpart that many insects use for feeding. For materials scientists, the goal is to develop what they call “fiber-based fluidic devices,” among them probes that could eventually allow doctors to pluck a single defective gene out of a cell and replace it with a good one, said Dr. Konstantin Kornev, a Clemson materials physics professor. “If someone were programmed to have an illness, it would be eliminated,” he said. Researchers published some of their findings about the butterfly proboscis online on June 15, 2014 in The Journal of Experimental Biology, with a correction following in the same journal on July 1, 2014. The scientists are now advancing to a new phase in their studies. Much remains unknown about how insects use tiny pores and channels in the proboscis to sample and handle fluid. “It’s like the proverbial magic well,” said Clemson entomology professor Dr. Peter Adler. “The more we learn about the butterfly proboscis, the more it has for us to learn about it.” Dr. Kornev said he was attracted to butterflies for their ability to draw various kinds of liquids. “It can be very thick like nectar and honey or very thin like water,” he said. “They do that easily.
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