UC Berkeley researchers find turkey skin colors may lead to technology warning about hidden bombs, lung cancer

Michael Drummond/Senior Staff
Turkeys, such as those that roam near the Foothill residence halls, have color-changing skin that may inspire new technologies.

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The vibrant colors on the skin of turkeys may soon lead to new technology that can warn about problems ranging from hidden bombs to lung cancer, according to a report by UC Berkeley bioengineers that was released earlier this month.

When turkeys get excited, bundles of collagen fibers in their skin compress and expand, causing a visible skin color change as light waves are scattered. In the lab, researchers have recreated this natural phenomenon in viruses, whose physical reaction to certain chemicals could signify the presence of harmful toxins in both the atmosphere and in the human body.

“We are very interested in nature’s way of developing material and how simple fiber is organized and controlled,” said Seung-Wuk Lee, associate professor of bioengineering and one of the paper’s 15 authors, 13 of whom are affiliated with UC Berkeley. “Ninety percent of our body structure is collagen, and depending on how this collagen is organized, it controls the structure and function of parts of the body.”

After studying the fluctuations of collagen fibers in turkeys, the researchers found a benign viral bacteriophage with a similar structure to collagen fibers that also visibly responds to toxins in its environment.

The researchers then went through multiple rounds of altering the structure of the virus so its exterior would react only to one gaseous chemical, TNT, and could indicate the presence of a bomb in the nearby area.

Some color changes, however, are extremely small and almost undetectable without the use of technology, according to the paper, published in Nature Communications earlier this month.

In order to tackle the difficulty of monitoring minute color changes in the viral particles, the researchers created a smartphone app, iColour Analyser, that can recognize even small changes in the visible color spectrum. The app utilizes the high-resolution cameras on smartphones to analyze photos taken before and after a supposed color change and determine whether a chemical is present in the environment.

“When color changes are very obvious, by taking a look with the naked eye, we can see them and know what kind of chemicals are exposed in our matrixes,” Lee said. “But sometimes we cannot precisely tell how much color has changed, so we designed a new type of platform to read these color changes for us.”

According to Lee, the color-changing technology may be used in the future to identify the presence of lung cancer and other diseases by monitoring bodily functions, such as breathing.

“We’re trying to use the same approach to detecting toxins to also monitor our health in various ways,” Lee said. “We envision that color matrixes will become a new technology that is very easy to use and is put to good use more broadly.”

Claire Chiara is the lead research and ideas reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @claireechiara.