Could Swiss cheese patterns in a butterfly wing help cure cancer? Pic: iStock.

Flying colours

Could Swiss cheese patterns in a butterfly wing help cure cancer? By TEGAN DOLSTRA.

Butterflies are pretty unassuming. They flit about, discreetly sipping nectar and quietly soaking up some sun.

So who knew that they could be harbouring the blueprint for next-generation supercomputers or slow-release cancer drugs?

It turns out the wings of these kaleidoscopic critters are home to some pretty far-out geometrical structures that could prove useful in all sorts of areas.

"It's a really elaborate 3D sponge structure," explains Professor Stephen Hyde from the ANU Department of Applied Mathematics.

"Think of it as Swiss cheese - it's an incredibly complicated Swiss cheese."

Known as photonic crystals, these labyrinthine configurations are responsible for some of nature's most amazing colours.

"When you see a beetle or a butterfly or even a peacock feather that looks a bit metallic, it's usually a giveaway that the colour is not due to pigmentation," says Hyde. "Something funky is going on."

Different insects have different types of photonic structures.

The main aspect that affects the colour is the size of the structure, explains Hyde.

"The species we looked at, Callophrys rubi, has green underwings.

"They're green because light comes into the sponge, bounces around, and only the green wavelength is the right size to escape; the rest of the colours get trapped inside.

"If you change the size of the opening, you change which colour can escape."