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American Association for the Advancement of Science

What animal is whiter than the whitest smile?

Every now and then, scientists discover that nature has produced a much better version of something they are trying to make themselves. A team of researchers in the U.K. has just made this kind of discovery about the white Cyphochilus beetle.

This beetle is a brilliant white, which is extremely unusual in nature. Even brighter than a tissue or the enamel on your teeth; Cyphochilus' whiteness is more like that of bleached computer paper.

Pete Vukusic of Exeter University and his colleagues have now learned that this super-brightness comes from the scales that cover the beetle's body, head and legs. Instead of containing a white pigment, these scales use a different strategy to appear white.

The molecules that make up the scales are arranged in such a way that when light hits them, they scatter all the visible wavelengths (instead of just one color) and what we see is the color white.

What's especially cool about these scales is that they're many times thinner than a piece of paper or other bright white materials made by humans. These scales might therefore show researchers a way to increase the brightness of white objects made by humans, such as devices that can emit white-light.

These findings appear in the 19 January 2007 issue of the journal Science.