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Butterflies could hold key to probes that repair genes

The technology could be used for medical devices, nanobioreactors that make complex materials and flying "micro-air vehicles" the size of an insect.

"It opens up a huge number of applications," Kornev said. "We are actively seeking collaboration with cell biologists, medical doctors and other professionals who might find this research exciting and helpful in their applications."

The study also is breaking new ground in biology. While scientists had a fundamental idea of how butterflies feed, it was less complete than it is now, Adler said.

Scientists have long known that butterflies use the proboscis to suck up fluid, similar to how humans use a drinking straw, Adler said. But the study found that the butterfly proboscis also acts as a sponge, he said.

"It's a dual mechanism," Adler said. "As they move the proboscis around, it can help sponge up the liquid and then facilitate the delivery of the liquid so that it can then be sucked up."

As part of the study, researchers observed butterflies on flowers at the Cherry Farm Insectary just south of the main campus on the shore of Hartwell Lake. Butterflies were raised in the lab and recorded on video as they fed.

Researchers are turning their attention to smaller insects, such as flies, moths and mosquitoes, but the focus will remain on the proboscis.

In the next phase of the study, researchers would like to understand how the proboscis forms.

Larvae enter the pupa without a proboscis and emerge as a butterfly with one. Understanding what happens in the pupa could help develop the probes, Adler said.

Another challenge is figuring out how to keep the probe from getting covered with organic material when it's inserted into the body, he said.

That's why researchers are beginning to turn their focus to an insect almost everyone else shoos away.

"It seems the flies are able to pierce an animal's tissue, take up the blood an

Contact: Konstantin Kornev
Clemson University

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