Ontogeny of an Iridescent Nanostructure Composed of Hollow Melanosomes

Document Type


Publication Date

Spring 4-2015


Iridescent colors in feathers are some of the brightest in nature, and are produced by coherent light scattering from periodic arrangements of melanosomes (melanin-containing organelles). Hollow melanosomes, an evolutionary innovation largely restricted to birds, contain an optically powerful combination of high and low refractive indices (from the melanin and air, respectively) that enables production of brighter and more saturated colors than solid melanosomes. However, despite their significance to avian color and potential utility as optical biomaterials, little is known about the ontogeny of either the melanosomes themselves or the nanostructures they comprise. We used light and electron microscopy to characterize nanostructural development in regenerating feathers of wild turkeys, a species with iridescent color produced by a hexagonally close-packed array of hollow melanosomes. We found that melanosomes form as solid bodies in melanocytes. Later in development, largely after placement in developing barbules, their interiors dissolve and leave hollow cores. These now hollow melanosomes are initially disorganized in the barbule, but become close-packed as they are pulled to the edge of the barbule, likely through a combination of forces including depletion–attraction. These data suggest that these structurally colored tissues are self-assembled and represent novel pathways of development.

Publication Title

Journal of Morphology





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