Structural colour in plants and algae

  • Nathan Masters

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Colour is one of the aspects of life which adds beauty. Vivid colouration of our environment stimulates our visual senses and adds a further dimension to our perception of life. Structural colour in particular, which often possesses the most intense and vibrant examples of colouration, makes us wonder at the jewel-like wings of butterflies, and the cuticle of beetles. In some instances however, structural colour is far more subtle. The colouration of plants and algae is typically pigment related, and in many cases, appear green or brown. Flowers are an obvious counter example, pigmentation creates huge variation and spectacular displays - these displays typically in order to attract pollinators. In this work, we investigate the structural colouration of the lycophyte, Selaginella erythropus, the green algae, Cystoseira tamariscifolia, and the central colour spot in the flower of Spiloxene capensis. The lycophyte and green algae, demonstrate examples of structural colour which is relatively inconspicuous. Conversely, Spiloxene capensis exhibits a bright, and varied, metallic appearance to the central colour spot. In this work we find variable, and reversible colouration of Cystoseira tamariscifolia; a shared photonic structure between Spiloxene capensis and Cystoseira tamariscifolia, which has not been replicated elsewhere in the natural world, or through artificial synthesis; and a further example of structural colouration originating from the chloroplast ultrastructure of Selaginella erythropus. These examples of structural colouration demonstrate the importance of looking closely at the world around us - to understand the intricacy of the underlying structures which produce the colours we see, only adds to the beauty of life.
Date of Award23 Jan 2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Bristol
SupervisorHeather M Whitney (Supervisor), Ruth Oulton (Supervisor), Henkjan Gersen (Supervisor) & Martin J Cryan (Supervisor)

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