A student of mine seemed disappointed yesterday when I handed her a paper to read about Butterflies. I wanted to give an example of a nicely written scientific paper that was low on technicality and covered many of the same topics and techniques we had already engaged in class.

The response I got was less than enthusiastic. ‘But what’s the point of studying butterflies? Who would fund that?’ These questions are in reasonable complaints on the mind of many, non-scientists and scientists alike. A recent interview with the astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson touches on the question of whether the exclusive purpose of science is some grand goal of bettering humanity. Certainly, a good deal of progress comes from funding smart people to do new and exceptional science with the hope that interesting findings produced will satisfy immediate objectives as well as serendipitous future outcomes.

I was happy to see the next day this article published in Nature nanotechnology, where silk moth antennae inspired technology that can improve diagnostics for critical diseases such as Alzheimer’s. Often, diagnostics that work on the molecular level work by being able to detect and/or distinguish the presence of certain molecules. For instance, an Alzheimer’s test might work by detecting the beta-amyloid plaques that are thought to be involved in the disease.

When nanopores are used, detection typically involves monitoring some change in the nanopore as a molecule passes through; there may be a change in voltage at the nanopore, or perhaps there is simply size exclusion (e.g.  molecule A can pass through the nanopore, but molecule B cannot). The design of the moth nanopores makes them resistant to clogging, a problem which has hampered previous artificial nanopore designs. The article’s authors speculate that their finding could in fact be used to develop a new Alzheimer’s diagnostic.

Perhaps a day spent observing butterflies is time well spent, rather than idle daydreaming.