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Reverse and forward engineering of Drosophila corneal nanocoatings


Insect eyes have an anti-reflective coating, owing to nanostructures on the corneal surface creating a gradient of refractive index between that of air and that of the lens material1,2. These nanocoatings have also been shown to provide anti-adhesive functionality3. The morphology of corneal nanocoatings are very diverse in arthropods, with nipple-like structures that can be organized into arrays or fused into ridge-like structures4. This diversity can be attributed to a reaction–diffusion mechanism4 and patterning principles developed by Alan Turing5, which have applications in numerous biological settings6. The nanocoatings on insect corneas are one example of such Turing patterns, and the first known example of nanoscale Turing patterns4. Here we demonstrate a clear link between the morphology and function of the nanocoatings on Drosophila corneas. We find that nanocoatings that consist of individual protrusions have better anti-reflective properties, whereas partially merged structures have better anti-adhesion properties. We use biochemical analysis and genetic modification techniques to reverse engineer the protein Retinin and corneal waxes as the building blocks of the nanostructures. In the context of Turing patterns, these building blocks fulfil the roles of activator and inhibitor, respectively. We then establish low-cost production of Retinin, and mix this synthetic protein with waxes to forward engineer various artificial nanocoatings with insect-like morphology and anti-adhesive or anti-reflective function. Our combined reverse- and forward-engineering approach thus provides a way to economically produce functional nanostructured coatings from biodegradable materials.

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Fig. 1: Structure, function and composition of corneal nanocoatings across the genus Drosophila.
Fig. 2: Structure and function of the Drosophila nanocoatings resulting from genetic manipulations of the Turing activator and inhibitor.
Fig. 3: Induced folding of Retinin on direct binding to waxes.
Fig. 4: In vitro production of insect-like nanocoatings.

Data availability

The data that support the findings of this study are available within the paper and its Supplementary InformationSource data are provided with this paper.

Code availability

The Supplementary Information contains the Matlab script used.


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We thank A. Koval for MATLAB programming and members of the Katanaev lab for reading the manuscript.

Author information




M.K. performed most experiments; O.B. performed a set of genetics experiments; J.L. participated in, and M.F. supervised, the physical measurements (AFM, reflectance, and so on); V.L.K. designed the work and guided the experiments. All authors participated in writing the paper.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Vladimir L. Katanaev.

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Competing interests

M.K. and V.L.K. are inventors (University of Lausanne) on a patent application (EP18175103.3) for artificial insect-like nanocoatings. Other authors do not have any competing interests.

Additional information

Peer review information Nature thanks Shigeru Kondo and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

This Supplementary Information consists of Supplementary Notes 1-6 (including Supplementary Figures 1-17 and Supplementary Tables 1-3), Supplemental Methods and Supplementary References, altogether providing exhaustive description of details of the technical aspects of our work.

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Kryuchkov, M., Bilousov, O., Lehmann, J. et al. Reverse and forward engineering of Drosophila corneal nanocoatings. Nature 585, 383–389 (2020).

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