Electron Tomography and Machine Learning for Understanding the Highly Ordered Structure of Leafhopper Brochosomes

Gabriel R. Burks, Lehan Yao, Falon C. Kalutantirige, Kyle J. Gray, Elizabeth Bello, Shreyas Rajagopalan, Sarah B. Bialik, Jeffrey E. Barrick, Marianne Alleyne, Qian Chen, Charles M. Schroeder

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Insects known as leafhoppers (Hemiptera: Cicadellidae) produce hierarchically structured nanoparticles known as brochosomes that are exuded and applied to the insect cuticle, thereby providing camouflage and anti-wetting properties to aid insect survival. Although the physical properties of brochosomes are thought to depend on the leafhopper species, the structure-function relationships governing brochosome behavior are not fully understood. Brochosomes have complex hierarchical structures and morphological heterogeneity across species, due to which a multimodal characterization approach is required to effectively elucidate their nanoscale structure and properties. In this work, we study the structural and mechanical properties of brochosomes using a combination of atomic force microscopy (AFM), electron microscopy (EM), electron tomography, and machine learning (ML)-based quantification of large and complex scanning electron microscopy (SEM) image data sets. This suite of techniques allows for the characterization of internal and external brochosome structures, and ML-based image analysis methods of large data sets reveal correlations in the structure across several leafhopper species. Our results show that brochosomes are relatively rigid hollow spheres with characteristic dimensions and morphologies that depend on leafhopper species. Nanomechanical mapping AFM is used to determine a characteristic compression modulus for brochosomes on the order of 1-3 GPa, which is consistent with crystalline proteins. Overall, this work provides an improved understanding of the structural and mechanical properties of leafhopper brochosomes using a new set of ML-based image classification tools that can be broadly applied to nanostructured biological materials.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)190-200
Number of pages11
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 9 2023

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Bioengineering
  • Materials Chemistry
  • Polymers and Plastics
  • Biomaterials


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