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September 30, 2015

Butterflies could hold key to probes that repair genes (Image 2)

Doctoral student Pavel Aprelev (left) and incoming freshman Natalie Ivey examine a butterfly in the lab of Konstantin Kornev, a materials physics professor at Clemson University. Kornev and other researchers at Clemson have made new discoveries about how butterflies feed that could help engineers develop tiny probes to siphon liquid out of single cells for a wide range of medical tests and treatments.

The research, which is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), is bringing together Clemson materials scientists and biologists, who are focusing on the butterfly proboscis, the mouthpart that many insects use for feeding.

Materials scientists, led by Konstantin Kornev, a materials physics professor at Clemson, are working to develop what they call "fiber-based fluidic devices," including probes. Kornev says they could eventually allow doctors to remove a single defective gene out of a cell and replace it with a good one.

Kornev chose butterflies as his test subject due to their ability to draw various types of liquids--both thick like nectar and honey and thin like water. The probe would be able to draw fluid out of a single cell -- which is 10 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair -- and be able to differentiate between different types of fluids. The technology would have applications in medical devices, nano-bioreactors that make complex materials and flying "micro-air vehicles" the size of an insect.

The study is also furthering knowledge for Clemson biologists. While scientists know butterflies use the proboscis to suck up fluid (similar to how humans use a drinking straw), the biologists learned from the study that the butterfly proboscis also acts as a sponge. As butterflies move their proboscis around it helps sponge up the liquid and also facilitates delivery of the liquid so that it can be sucked up.

For the next phase of this research, the researchers will seek to understand how the proboscis forms, and will work to develop a way to keep the probe from getting covered with organic material when it's inserted into the body.

[Note: This material is based on work supported by NSF grants IOS 13-54956, EFRI 09-37985 and PHY 13-05338.]

To learn more about this research, see the NSF News From the Field story Butterflies could hold key to probes that repair genes. (Date image taken: 2012-2014; date originally posted to NSF Multimedia Gallery: Sept. 30, 2015) [Image 2 of 3 related images. See Image 3.]

Credit: Paul F. Alongi, Technical and Features Writer, Clemson University

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