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Turkey Skin Sensor

January 27, 2014

A new chemical sensor was inspired by turkey skin’s color changing properties.



What turkeys teach engineers. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

The skin on a male turkey’s head changes color with the bird’s mood, rapidly shifting between red, pink, white and blue. For instance, it turns red if the turkey is angry. Bioengineer Seung-Wuk Lee of the University of California at Berkeley and his colleagues used the color-changing skin as a model for a new chemical sensor. In turkeys, swelling blood vessels cause collagen fibers to spread out, resulting in the color changes. The sensor contains fibers formed by bundling benign viruses, which can be engineered to react to certain chemicals. In the presence of one of these chemicals, the fibers swell or contract, changing the sensor’s color just slightly.

The researchers have developed a smartphone app that can distinguish between subtle color differences. Possible applications range from detecting traces of explosives to sniffing patients’ breath for chemical markers of cancer. I’m Bob Hirshon for AAAS, the Science Society.