Grow your own paint? Could happen using genetic coding of nature’s colors

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In the United Kingdom, researchers from the University of Cambridge and Dutch company Hoekmine BV are unlocking the genetic code behind some of the brightest and most vibrant colors in nature. This is the first systematic study of the genes underpinning structural colors — not only in bacteria but in any living system.

The study shows how genetics can change the color, and appearance, of certain types of bacteria. The results open up the possibility of harvesting these bacteria for the large-scale manufacturing of nanostructured materials: biodegradable, non-toxic paints could be ‘grown’ and not made, for example.

The researchers compared the genetic information to optical properties and anatomy of wild-type and mutated bacterial colonies to understand how genes regulate the color of the colony. By genetically mutating the bacteria, the researchers changed their dimensions or their ability to move, which altered the geometry of the colonies. By changing the geometry, they changed the color: they changed the original metallic green color of the colony in the entire visible range from blue to red. They were also able to create duller coloration or make the color disappear entirely.