The luminous colours that seem to change when seen from different angles, in butterfly wings and beetle shells have puzzled the scientific community for centuries.
The iridescence is not formed by pigments or dyes. The shimmering vibrancy is created by minute 3-D structures which change the way the light is reflected.
Now a team of scientists at the Natural History Museum in London has, for the first time, grown living cells in the lab, which have produced butterfly scales.
Professor Andrew Park, of the museum, has been studying butterflies and beetles as well as highly coloured birds and tropical fish for many years.
During his research he excavated ancient beetles with shells which maintained the same vibrant colour they had when the insects lived over 49 million years ago.
He realised that the nano-structures in wings and beetle shells were extremely difficult to reproduce with existing tools, even using the very latest techniques. So he instigated a trial to try to grow living cells that would then go on to create the optical structures by themselves.
Now, after a period of 2 years the research has successfully produced nano-scales. The next stage is to produce larger quantities for commercial trials.
Professor Park regards this as the start of a process that could eventually recreate the colours of many exotic fish, birds and iridescent reptiles and lead to fade free paint.