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A team of scientists from the University of California San Diego and two other universities has received a five year, $7.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Defense to unravel the fundamental properties of melanins, a family of natural pigments found in skin, hair, eyes and even the plumage of brightly colored birds.

tfab-the_god_particle_in_flesh-dev-dev-text-re-re-final-final-refinal-resized-touch_upThe basic research effort, which will be conducted in part by Scripps Institution of Oceanography marine biologist Dimitri Deheyn, will focus on elucidating the biochemical pathways that lead to the production of melanins in a range of organisms—compounds that efficiently absorb ultraviolet light and protect skin cells in humans—and gain a better understanding of the chemistry and morphology of melanin polymers at the molecular scale, nanoscale, micrometer and at the macroscale.

The project is being funded by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, under the Defense Department’s Multidisciplinary Research Initiative, or MURI program, with the goal of using these natural pigments to develop new kinds of advanced materials.

melanin_gold“Melanin is a ubiquitous natural material that has so far been underutilized in materials science and technological applications,” said Nathan Gianneschi, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry, materials science and engineering and nanoengineering at UC San Diego, who heads the research team. “But this polymer has a unique blend of properties, including strong ultraviolet and gamma radiation absorbance, a high refractive index, material toughness, high conductivity, magnetism and a high metal-binding capacity.”

By unraveling the basic biology, chemistry and structural properties of melanins at multiple length scales, the team plans over the next three years to provide the foundation for the development of melanin-based synthetic materials for a wide range of applications.

“We hope this basic research effort will eventually lead to the establishment of new methods of assembly to create functional arrays and structures that can be integrated into materials, providing them with unprecedented new optical, infrared, magnetic and biochemical properties,” said Gianneschi. (Source)