Solar Powered Hornets – A New Source for Bioenergy?

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Oriental Hornet by Kreta via WikiCommons

That yellow stripe on the Oriental Hornet is nature's solar panel.

Harvesting sunlight for energy isn’t just for plants anymore. Scientists in Israel and the UK have discovered that the Oriental Hornet (Vespa orientalis) has a special ‘solar panel’ that it uses to convert light into usable energy. The extra boost of energy the hornet receives may be why the insect correlates its nest-building activities with the intensity of the sun. A study of the hornet, and its solar panel, was recently published in the journal Naturwissenschaften. Researchers now have a new understanding of the special pigment, xanthopterin, the hornet contains in the yellow solar panel part of its body. This opens new possibilities in energy collection – there’s another biological option for solar power besides chlorophyll and photosynthesis. Oriental Hornets and xanthopterin are extraordinary examples of the surprises that nature has yet to show us in energy, genetics, and zoology.

There’s little doubt that the hornet has evolved to take advantage of solar power. The yellow stripe on its abdomen not has a different primary pigment than the rest of its body (xanthopterin vs melanin), and the cuticle (external layer) of the insect has a light affecting structure as well. Remarkably, some layers in the cuticle display the properties as a diffraction grating, helping to trap and contain light! By reflecting some colors of light and trapping others, the solar cuticle helps to provide as much light energy to the xanthopterin particles as possible. This animal’s body is nature’s equivalent of a well designed solar cell.

Why it needs that design isn’t exactly clear. It’s still very early in the research process, and the study in Naturwissenschaften isn’t able to explain the exact biochemical process that transforms sunlight into energy the hornet can use. It does look like a good part of the insect’s metabolic functions are centered around the solar panel section of its body. Authors of the study hypothesize that the xanthopterin could be assisting or accelerating the metabolic process in the hornet’s cells. No matter how the insect uses it, the very fact that there is an animal that harnesses sunlight is rather astonishing. Sure, many creatures use solar heating to help them control their body heat. Oriental Hornets, however, are actually translating light energy into usable electrical/chemical energy. That’s in a league of its own.

While the structure of the insect’s cuticle in the yellow solar panel section is probably not very useful to us, xanthopterin could be. The scientists studying the Oriental Hornet constructed a dye-sensitized solar cell to demonstrate the effectiveness of the insect’s conversion of light to electrical energy. In the words of the authors, the xanthopterin powered solar cells “provide a technically and economically credible alternative concept to crystalline silicon-based p–n junction photovoltaic devices.” That is to say, we could use xanthopterin as an alternate way of building solar panels for humans.

So there’s at least the possibility that xanthopterin could provide new avenues of attack for solar energy. It could also have implications in bioengineering. If the genes for xanthopterin production can be found it would give biologists another tool to help them engineer microorganisms that can convert solar power into chemical or electrical energy. That could have a big impact in biofuels, cybernetic implants, and many other fields.

Clearly it will be many years before scientists would be able to turn this discovery towards practical applications. Still, knowing that nature has probably provided another means of converting light into chemical or electrical energy is pretty exciting. Unexpected finds like this one are why science is so addictive. I can’t wait to see what other secrets are out there, waiting for us to stumble upon in the years ahead.

[image credit: Kreta via WikiCommons]
[sources: BBC News, Plotkin et al 2010 Naturwissenschaften]

Discussion — 6 Responses

  • Regeneratemd December 17, 2010 on 4:58 am

    I think, they are discovering go to more deeply about bionets. And total information is very effective and knowledgeable for the medical and science students.

  • Steph December 23, 2010 on 8:03 am

    But what happens when their very large alien cousins land on Earth and say “oyyyy, what have you been doing to our cousins?” GULP!!

  • copiousk December 29, 2010 on 2:06 pm

    This gives “lighting a fire under your ass” new meaning.

    Anyway … nature seems to have solutions for almost everything. We are not as smart as we think we are … which is OK … we just need to remain fervent and continue our exploration, discovery and education.

  • copiousk December 29, 2010 on 2:09 pm

    I see a version of “The Matrix” for Hornets coming out soon!

  • Ivan Malagurski December 30, 2010 on 4:27 pm

    Just shows how much we have yet to learn about nature….

  • Clint8x January 3, 2011 on 1:50 am

    The natural world has fine tuned itself for millions of years. Our job is to not be so self absorbed in our messy, inefficient technological gains. And keep our eyes on the engineering marvels in beautiful dynamic flow around us, and seek to learn from older, far better, non human engineered systems. All we must do is reverse engineer what has already been for millions of years. Nature and technology should end up as complementary to one another