In butterfly wing scales, chitin is organized into stacks of gyroids constructed of chitin photonic crystals that produce various iridescent colors serving phenotypic signaling and communication for mating and foraging. The elaborate chitin gyroid construction in butterfly wings creates a model of optical devices having potential for innovations in biomimicry. Scarab beetles in the genus Cyphochilus also utilize chitin to form extremely thin scales (five to fifteen micrometres thick) that diffusely reflect white light. These scales are networks of randomly ordered filaments of chitin with diameters on the scale of hundreds of nanometres, which serve to scatter light. The multiple scattering of light is thought to play a role in the unusual whiteness of the scales. In addition, some social wasps, such as Protopolybia chartergoides, orally secrete material containing predominantly chitin to reinforce the outer nest envelopes, composed of paper.
The immune response can sometimes clear the chitin and its associated organism, but sometimes the immune response is pathological and becomes an allergy; allergy to house dust mites is thought to be driven by a response to chitin.
Plants also have receptors that can cause a response to chitin, namely chitin elicitor receptor kinase 1 and chitin elicitor-binding protein. The first chitin receptor was cloned in 2006. When the receptors are activated by chitin, genes related to plant defense are expressed, and jasmonate hormones are activated, which in turn activate systematic defenses.Commensal fungi have ways to interact with the host immune response that, as of 2016[update], were not well understood.
Some pathogens produce chitin-binding proteins that mask the chitin they shed from these receptors.Zymoseptoria tritici is an example of a fungal pathogen that has such blocking proteins; it is a major pest in wheat crops.
For more on the preservation potential of chitin and other biopolymers, see taphonomy.
Chitin was probably present in the exoskeletons of Cambrian arthropods such as trilobites. The oldest preserved chitin dates to the Oligocene, about 25 million years ago, consisting of a scorpion encased in amber.
Chitin is used in industry in many processes. Examples of the potential uses of chemically modified chitin in food processing include the formation of edible films and as an additive to thicken and stabilize foods and food emulsions. Processes to size and strengthen paper employ chitin and chitosan.
How chitin interacts with the immune system of plants and animals has been an active area of research, including the identity of key receptors with which chitin interacts, whether the size of chitin particles is relevant to the kind of immune response triggered, and mechanisms by which immune systems respond. Chitin and chitosan have been explored as a vaccine adjuvant due to its ability to stimulate an immune response.
In 2020, chitin was proposed for use in building structures, tools, and other solid objects from a composite material of chitin combined with Martian regolith. In this scenario, the biopolymers in the chitin act as the binder for the regolith aggregate to form a concrete-like composite material. The authors believe that waste materials from food production (e.g. scales from fish, exoskeletons from crustaceans and insects, etc.) could be put to use as feedstock for manufacturing processes.
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