Home Science Environment A Newly Discovered Type of Opal Formed by Common Seaweed Found

A Newly Discovered Type of Opal Formed by Common Seaweed Found

Scientists have discovered a completely new type of opal formed by a common seaweed that harnesses natural technology by self-assembling a nanostructure of oil droplets to control how light reflects from its cells to display a shimmering array of colors that, until now, has only been seen in the gemstone.

The findings, published in Science Advances and led by Drs. Heather Whitney and Ruth Oulton from the University of Bristol, show that the bright blue and green iridescent sheen from the brown algae seaweed, also known as “rainbow wrack” (Cystoseira tamariscifolia) and commonly found throughout the European coastal region, including the UK, arises from a complex nanostructure that controls how light reflects from its cells containing chloroplasts.

Morphology and structural colour of the brown algae seaweed known as Cystoseira Tamariscifolia (Image: University of Bristol)
Morphology and structural color of the brown algae seaweed known as Cystoseira tamariscifolia. (Image: University of Bristol)

Even more remarkable is how these seaweeds can switch this self-assembly on and off, creating changing opals that react to the changing sunlight in tidal rock pools.

Such structures arise from nanosized spheres packed tightly in a regular way and are known to optics experts to reflect different colors from incoming white light into different directions.

These types of structures are also seen naturally in gemstone opals, which comprise a nanostructure of tiny spheres of glass formed within hard stone deep below the Earth’s surface that naturally pack together in such a way that they diffract light into different directions, giving the opal it’s well-known opalescence.

Dr. Ruth Oulton, Professor Martin Cryan, and Dr. Martin Lopez-Garcia (now at the International Iberian Nanotechnology Institute, Portugal), all experts in nano-optics in Bristol’s School of Physics and Department of Electrical Engineering, discovered that these natural “living” opals form not from glass, but from tiny oil droplets made by the seaweed.

In a process unknown to present nanotechnology, the seaweed’s chloroplast-containing cells (which aid photosynthesis) self-assemble the oil droplets into a regular packing.

Surprisingly, these seaweeds can switch this self-assembly on and off, creating changing opals that react to the changing sunlight in tidal rock pools. Even more remarkable is how the seaweed performs the dynamic self-assembly, over a timescale of just hours, and is a true mystery to the research team.

Dr Martin Lopez-Garcia, said:

Nathan Masters, a Ph.D. student in the Schools of Physics and Biological Sciences at Bristol, discovered that by shining light onto the seaweed, the iridescence disappeared, but when kept in almost dark conditions, the blue-green sheen reappeared.

By imaging the seaweed at a sub-nanoscale level, the team discovered that the seaweed was switching on and off the self-assemblygoing from a disordered, unreflective state to an ordered, opalescent one. But most surprising to the research team was that the opal is dynamic.

Why the seaweed does this remains to be proven, but Drs. Heather Whitney and Heath O’Brien, who carried out the work while at Bristol’s School of Biological Sciences (now at Cardiff University), believe that because the opals sit in the same part of the cell as the chloroplasts — the light energy harvesting bodies of the organism — they are likely to be controlling the light levels, scattering the light evenly to all the available chloroplasts inside the cell.

This may help the seaweed cope with different light levels during high and low tide. Dr. Ruth Oulton, Reader in Quantum Photonics in the School of Physics and Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering, added:

Provided by: University of Bristol [Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.]

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Troy Oakes
Troy was born and raised in Australia and has always wanted to know why and how things work, which led him to his love for science. He is a professional photographer and enjoys taking pictures of Australia's beautiful landscapes. He is also a professional storm chaser where he currently lives in Hervey Bay, Australia.

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