60-Second Science

Turkey Skin Inspires Chemical Sensor

When turkeys get riled up, their skin can change color because of alterations in the arrangement of connective tissue. Researchers created a chemical sensor made of viruses based on the same principle


What do turkeys have to do with toxin detection? No, they can't sniff out poison. But scientists have been inspired by the birds’ special skin.
You see, turkeys can change their skin color. When they get excited, their blood vessels swell, changing the spacing between connective tissues. The new spacing scatters light differently, making turkey skin shift from a red color to blue or white.
To imitate this function, researchers created sensors made of bundles of viruses known as bacteriophages. Like the tissues in turkey skin, the virus bundles can expand or contract, changing the color pattern of the sensor.
Because bacteriophages respond differently to different substances, they make unique color patterns when exposed to organic compounds like hexane or methanol. The work is in the journal Nature Communications. [Jin-Woo Oh et al., Biomimetic virus-based colourimetric sensors]
A potential smartphone app could spot changes in a sensor's color to identify different compounds and their concentrations. The sensors can even be made to detect dangerous substances such as TNT. Something you would not want to gobble, gobble, gobble.

—Sophie Bushwick

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

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