Field of Science

What do flamingos, Cheetos and Quantum Chemistry have in common?

The vibrant colors of flamingos and Cheetos Cheez Whiz™ are both the result of related carotenoid dyes. Carotenoids (named for the vegetable in which they were first found!) are based on a linear conjugated diene skeleton, and provide nature with many colorful accents. Canthaxanthin, for example, is fed to captive flamingos to produce their characteristic pink color (a similar pigment found in brine shrimp does the same favor for wild flamingos). Astaxanthin is responsible for the characterstic color of lobsters. Canaries, whose signature color is a greenish yellow, can be turned red if they are fed paprika during their molt. The new feathers will grow in orange-red.

If you're tired of only changing the color of your hair, you can try for a pumpkin look for fall. The compound that gives this class of vegetable pigments its name - β-carotene - when consumed in large quantities by humans, will turn them orange. [Really, but don't try this at home! It was observed clinically in Britain during WW II when food shortages led some people to include large amounts of carrots in their diets.]

If you thought the bright color of Cheez-Whiz and Cheetos was artificial -- it's not. Bixin or annatto, a natural pigment used for centuries, is the source of that unforgettable orange. Researchers have recently elucidated the biochemical pathway for the synthesis of bixin and are pursuing genetic engineering approaches to its bulk synthesis in tomatoes [Florence Bouvier in Science, 300:2089-2091, June 27, 2003].

What does this all have to do with quantum chemistry? A very simple quantum mechanical model, the particle in a one-dimensional box, can be used to predict the color of conjugated dyes.

UPDATE: Bixin isn't used to color Cheetos, but is used in Cheez Whiz.


  1. No, seriously. I eat so many carrots that I really do have an orange tinge to my hands. My sister, a doctor, pointed it out. It's a little creepy.

  2. I was a student of Martin Gouterman, a physical chemist at the University of Washington, who developed a similarly simple model describing the fluorescence of porphyrins.

  3. Nice!...I'll have to add that to this (and to my lecture notes)! Do you have a good leading reference I could direct people to?


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