Top Story: December 7, 2010

Solar Powered Insect


As humans improve upon solar technology—harnessing the sun’s light for energy—plants must be howling with laughter. With photosynthesis, they’ve been doing exactly that, quite efficiently, for hundreds of millions of years.

Now scientists have discovered an insect that might also convert the sun’s energy for fuel. Publishing in the journal Naturwissenschaften, the researchers describe the process by which the Oriental hornet uses its exoskeleton to absorb sunlight.

Since the 1990s, scientists noticed that these insects were different. They are most active during the hottest, brightest part of the day, unlike most wasps. Around that time, scientists also discovered that the Oriental hornet could actually produce voltage along its exoskeleton.

According to the PLoS Blog The Gleaming Retort, in 2009, the same scientists:

…showed that, unexpectedly, a variety of important metabolic activities seem to center on the yellow abdominal stripes of the Oriental hornets rather than around the fat bodies that normally handle them in insects. (Think about what this means: if the same arrangement applied to humans, our skin would be doing the job of our livers.)

Remember, beauty is not always only skin deep. The current research dug deeper into the exoskeleton. Looking at the brown and yellow areas of the hornet, the scientists went all the way down to the nano-level of its exoskeleton. They found that the yellow area would scatter the light, not reflect it, allowing it to penetrate into the deep layers of the exoskeleton. Essentially, the yellow areas were trapping the sunlight.

With the trapped sunlight, the yellow pigment, Xanthopterin, then works to use it. According to lead author Marian Plotkin, in BBC News:

"Xanthopterin works as a light harvesting molecule transforming light into electrical energy."

So do these Oriental hornets use photsynthesis to power their movements? According to Discover’s Discoblog, there’s not yet enough evidence

… but they’re working on it.

Image by MattiPaavola/Wikimedia Commons


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