Structural colour is widely found in nature and is defined by at least partially ordered nanostructures which interact with light to create vivid, angle-dependent colour. Structural colour (SC) is quite distinct from chemical pigments and offers superior properties (intensity, resistance to bleaching, advanced optical effects) compared to pigments and dyes. SC is familiar to us, for example in the way the feathers of the peacock catch the light. SC was observed by Hook and Newten in the 17th century and thanks to the efforts of optical physicists the study of SC at the level of optics is advanced. Despite the widespread distribution of SC in life (insects, arachnids, cephalopds, plants, birds) the genetics and genomics of SC in life is poorly studied and so there is no genomics view. However, we have developed the bacterium IR1, which aligns cells in colonies to form vivid SC, and used transposon mutagenesis to identify some of the genes involved (Johansen et al, 2018).
The aim of this project is to develop IR1 as a model organism with the modification of SC using synthetic genes (modified genes from IR1 or transgenics by importing genes involved in colour processes from other organisms). The aim is both to understand SC and create new 'production strains' which may be used to create sustainable biomaterials. This is already possible on a small scale, the work in this project is likely to make such materials more feasible and so support a disruptive innovation to reduce the use of dyes which often have a high carbon footprint and create problems in pollution (eg textiles). The second aspect of the project is long term automated cultivation to establish rapidly growing and stable production strains and understand the evolution of colour.
This project is designed to showcase the power of synthetic biology in rapidly developing a new a area of strain engineering for a form of colour previously not exploited.