Natural Coloring

Israeli research finds cleaning shrimps’ stripes key to better whitening agents

Ben-Gurion University of the Negev scientists discover that crustaceans’ stripes are made of one of the thinnest and most efficient white materials in nature

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

The Pacific Shrimp. (PilarMeca, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons)
The Pacific Shrimp. (PilarMeca, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons)

A species of shrimp immortalized in children’s movie “Finding Nemo” is inspiring the search for healthier ways to keep white bread and other products white.

Today, whitening agents in foods, cosmetics and paints tend to include inorganic nanoparticles such as titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, which have aroused health concerns.

But Dr. Ben Palmer and his student Tali Lemcoff of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in southern Israel say studying the Pacific cleaner shrimp has shone a light on a heretofore unknown principle in optics that could help change how things are whitened.

Their findings were published in late April in the journal Nature Photonics.

In Finding Nemo, the tentacled and French-accented cleaner shrimp Jacques fussily scrubs new arrivals in a fish tank where the titular clownfish ends up.

In real life, the Pacific Cleaner Shrimp uses white stripes on its body to attract fish so that it can pluck and eat parasites from their bodies.

The stripes, the researchers discovered, shine more white than should be possible given the fact that they are too thin to produce such an effect.

The scientists found that shrimp get around the optical hurdle via its unique arrangement of the very bright, densely packed molecular particles that make up the stripes.

White cells in the tail of a shrimp. (Tali Lemcoff, BGU)

“It is one of the first times we have learned an entirely new principle from studying an organism,” Palmer said. “The shrimp has overcome a seemingly fundamental hurdle in optics by creating particles with this special arrangement of molecules.”

Lemcoff said the molecular structure, which was more akin to liquid crystal displays now used in many screens, is “exceedingly rare in the animal world.”

The researchers said they are hopeful the breakthrough will help jumpstart the development of healthier whitening agents.

“Now the question is, how can we replicate this effect for creating new materials we could use as food additives in white bread, or white paint and other applications,” Palmer said.

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