Melanin: The Amazing Electronically-Active Semiconductor

a woman caring for a child

Melanin (also spelled melanine or melano-; from Ancient Greek μέλας, black, dark colored) is a broad term for a group of natural pigments found in most organisms. Melanin is produced by the pigment cells called melanocytes in a process called melanogenesis. It is found in the skin and hair of mammals, as well as the feathers, fur, and eyespots of some animals. In humans, melanin is the primary determinant of human skin color.

Melanin examples

What is Melanin?

Melanin is a naturally occurring pigment in the human body. It helps to protect your skin from the sun’s UV rays and, in some cases, even tanning. It also serves as an important sound absorber for the ear. However, there are certain types of melanin that can lead to health complications, such as Parkinson’s disease, if they accumulate over time. These melanins are produced through oxidation or damage to cells.

The Five types of Melanin

Eumelanin is a brownish-black pigment that provides skin and hair with a tanning effect, and it also protects the skin from sunburn. Pheomelanin is what causes blondes to have blonde hair, and its reddish hue can be seen in some pink flamingos. Neuromelanin is what gives color to the substantia nigra in our brains; it’s also an important sound absorber in our ears. Allomelanin is created when melanocytes react to oxidative stress (the process of generating chemicals within cells that damage molecules) and is responsible for skin cancer. Pyomelanin results when melanocytes are killed off by UV light, which is why tanning beds are so dangerous.

What makes Melanin so special?

Unlike other semiconductors, which are hard, brittle, and fragile, melanin is soft and flexible, so it can easily conform to the shape of the underlying skin cells. This makes it a fantastic skin protector that shields against UV rays from the sun, heat, and cold. It also protects us by absorbing ionizing radiation. In addition, we rely on Melanin as an essential part of our immune system because it helps to block bacteria and viruses.

How can we use this amazing semiconductor in our everyday lives?

Melanin is a skin protector that converts ultraviolet light into heat and sound. This can be used to treat sunburns as well as help protect skin from the harsh effects of the sun’s ultraviolet rays. As melanin absorbs UV radiation, it will also produce heat which in turn decreases the risk of cancerous cells forming on the skin. Melanin can also be used to produce electricity by converting light energy into other forms, such as thermal or sound energy. Thus this property could be used for solar power. It has also been shown to protect against radiation therapy side effects like hair loss, nausea, and vomiting.

The Future Applications of Melanin

Other than being great sound absorbers, they may be able to act as natural antennas that would allow computers and other electrical devices around us to sense things more easily. For example, a touchscreen display might respond better to touch if it had melanin built into it.

Another potential use of melanin in the future is for biofuel production. Skin cells have been genetically modified with the pigment gene so that they can produce eumelanin on their own when grown in a lab environment. These skin cells are then added to yeast cultures which feed on sugar and convert it into alcohol. The result? The same brown color is found in our skin, but without any toxic byproducts from industrial processes.

With further research and experimentation, we could create an all-natural skin protector that doesn’t only keep your skin safe from the sun’s damaging rays but also creates an alternative fuel source!  Melanin anyone? –MM


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Ubuntu Village will be traveling to Africa soon and we would like to document this trip and any other trips taken in a blog format.

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