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LuxeSci Show Notes: S3E7 - The Science of Ribbons

Hello Fancy Folks. Welcome back to LuxeSci, a podcast to reignite your wonder by exploring the intersection of science and luxury.  I’m your host, Dr. Lex, a forme parasitologist turned consultant with over a decade of research experience and a fairly large shoe collection.

In this episode, we’re going to focus on a fashion item that was all over the runways this year, I’m talking bows and ribbons!  Miu Miu, Simone Rocha and Sandy Liang all featured bows in a big way in their latest runway looks, whether it was glued to the underside of their eyes, adorning Miu miu’s satin ballet flats or turned into bags by Sandy Liang.  There are been articles waxing poetic about what the return of the ribbon means in a time when being a women seems to be under attack, but here at LuxeSci, we’re asking a different question.  

First, what is the appeal of ribbons, where did they come from? And…most importantly…are there ribbons in science?  Can a seemingly feminine icon be advantageous in science?

So if you’ve ever wondered what bows and ribbons have to do with protein folding and nerve endings (cause who hasn’t), come along and explore with us, and maybe learn a thing or two, I know I did.

And…if you like our content, please go ahead and use your perfectly manicured nails to hit that subscribe button.  Help us to spread the luxuriously scientific word!


  • The history of the ribbon is a little hard to pin, as with lots of the topics we discuss

  • But what is a ribbon?

  • Ribbons are narrow, woven strips or bands which are finished off on all the edges

  • As with most things related to fabric, people have been weaving narrow strips of fabric since around the Neolithic period.

  • Evidence of woven bands were found in Turkey dating from around 6000 BCE

  • It was customary for ancient Greeks, Egyptians, Sumerians and Aztecs to wear ribbons for hair adornment

  • Ribbons as we know them came into being in the Middle Ages when new loom technology allowed for more complex woven textiles

  • As early as the 11th century, lighter weight ribbons were being made in St. Etienne, France - these were probably more functional than decorative

  • Starting in the 14th century, ribbons became more decorative and more popular, with some countries making laws that only the nobility could wear ribbons (it was quite common then to have laws governing who could wear what based on the social status)

  • The popularity of ribbons continued well into Victorian times with male usage of ribbons declining by the 17th century

  • This was due to the decline in a popular hairstyle for men called the lovelock hairstyle - a long plait draped over the chest and tied with a ribbon at the end

  • Female usage picked up as more elaborate hairstyles and clothing were in vogue

  • Interestingly, the connection of bows and romance flourished again in the 1900s with an article of Life Magazine detailing how the position of a girl’s bow in her hair communicated whether she was taken, single or not interested.


  • While there is definitely physics and mathematics associated with ribbons and how they bend and twist, that’s not what we’re going to be discussing.  Mostly because physics isn’t my strong suit and also because there is some fascinating science around how ribbons show up in the natural world and how scientists are harnessing the advantages of ribbons to advance science

  • So let’s start with the basics - proteins.  We’ve discuss proteins lots of time before.  The most straightforward way to think about protein production is: DNA - RNA - Amino acids - Proteins - protein folding

  • Proteins - action powerhouse of the biological world.  You can see that in their name, coming from the Greek word proteios (primary).  They are the building blocks of biological tissue (skin, hair, nails, etc) and act as enzymes, antibodies and all sorts of things to drive life.

  • Amino acids - small building blocks of proteins.  There are 20-22 types and combinations of these building blocks make proteins.  You’ve probably heard of some of them as dietary supplements like glutamine

  • What amino acids make up a protein determine how the protein folds (i.e. its 3-D structure)

  • Protein folding is relatively conserved with similar amino acid content equalling similar folding

  • This is important because if a scientist can determine the fold of a protein, that will give clues to the function of a protein

  • Protein folding basics - so let’s get down to some basics of protein folding.  There are 4 levels of folding of proteins

  • Primary - this is the protein sequence of the protein, the line of amino acids that make up the protein. Usually, this the first thing that determines a protein’s shape

  • Secondary - the first layer of folding that involves the backbone of the protein and not the side chains (side chains - chemical groups that stick out from the amino acids).  The common ones are a-helices, b-sheets and turns (sounding ribbon like yet?

  • Tertiary -3-D arrangement of all the atoms in the protein (prices spatial coordination of secondary structure elements and the location of all functional groups) - domains, folds, motifs

  • Quaternary - structure of many proteins - spatial arrangement of the subunits within that mass

  • So what about the ribbons.  They appear in two prominent places

  • 1. Ribbon diagram - it was developed by Jane Richardson in 1980 as way to better show the structure of proteins to replace the wire models that were used at the time

  • For a review article, Jane drew smooth ribbons over the atoms of a computer graphic printout

  • Consulted her mother-in-law (an artist) and Irving Geis (who was a Scientifc American illustrator)

  • Took a belt and studied what her eyes saw when she twisted it

  • Published in 1981 for the first time  

  • It takes the primary structure and shows the twists and folds like a piece of ribbon

  • A-helices turn into coils

  • B-sheets are long flat arrows

  • Lets you see the common and related structures much more easily

  • Shouldn’t be used alone because you lose some of the information about the protein, such as the side chain residues of the amino acids

  • But there are also more defined ribbon-like structures in proteins

  • Many of these are in the DNA-binding proteins, which are proteins that bind DNA and are generally involved in DNA replication or transcription (reading DNA to turn into amino acids)

  • One motif that is used in this family of proteins is the B-ribbon motif

  • This is 2 beta strands that look like a hairpin. These 2 beta strands wrap around the DNA

  • This is found a lot in prokaryotes (bacteria, etc)

  • Oof - I haven’t talked that much about protein structure since my biochem class in undergrad

  • To summarize - protein structure is important to protein function.  Protein structure can look like ribbons and some structures are classified as ribbons (especially those involved in DNA binding)

  • A useful visualization of protein structure is a ribbon diagram where the primary structure of the protein is represented as a ribbon

  • That’s ribbon science on a very microscopic level. What if we zoom out a little bit?  Did you know that you need ribbons to sense things?

  • Synaptic ribbons are organelles (organized and specialized structures in a cell) located in sensory neurons in the visual, auditory and equilibrium systems

  • These ribbons act like a conveyor belt in response to stimuli.  They move vesicles containing neurotransmitters to the area to be released to send the signal along.  This is done pretty much continuously because of the constant need to send signals along the system. (Think of synaptic ribbons in your rods and cones in your eyes).  Your eyes are constantly acquiring information that must be processed and thus the signals along the neurons are almost constant as well.

  • Recent evidence shows that it may not sustained release of neurotransmitters but transient, but synchronous release.  

  • This would imply that the synaptic ribbons have greater control over the vesicles than previously thought

  • All i can say is that the little i keep learning about anything to do with neuroscience, the more impressed I am.  It’s a beautifully complex and coordinated system.

  • So we’ve gone very microscopic (protein structure) to slightly more macroscopic (neuron synapses) and now to something actually macroscopic, a worm!  You all know I love worms, so much so that I spent the better part of a decade learning about them and studying them.  So now we’re going to take a look at the ribbon worm

  • Phylum Nemerteans - ribbon worms with around 1300 species

  • Most are found in marine environments

  • Contains Lineus longissimus - longest animal on earth reaching lengths of 50m

  • Many species are brightly colored and that’s because they can be toxic

  • They have a proboscis (like a mosquito) and the toxins are thought to be located in the anterior part of that

  • The marine species like to eat molluscs, crustaceans and other worms

  • Toxin examples:

  • Pyridine alkaloids - nitrogen containing compounds usually found in plants (ex - nicotine) and may cause paralysis in crustaceans

  • Tetrodoxtoxin (TTX) - same toxin as puffer fish and causes a strong paralytic effect 

  • I, for one, am always excited to learn about a new kind of worm, though I think I’ll be avoiding these ones if possible. While they are not likely to be toxic to humans, i can’t imagine it would feel good to come into contact with one

  • OK - i know this has been a really heavy science episode but I have one more super cool thing i’d like to share if you can hang in there with me.  (BTW - this is still way less painful than a full organic chemistry lecture so you’re welcome)

  • I couldn’t let this episode end without a mention or solar cells.  For those of you who don’t know, our audio engineer and sometime cohost, Dr. Dimos, used to have a solar inverter company.  He designed and manufactured the device that links solar panels to the grid and to back-up batteries (he’s so smart).  So we’ve talked a lot about solar power in our family.

  • When we were first dating - Dimos made me a bracelet that had a small solar cell on it and a purple LED light.  When I went outside, the light lit up.  It was very cool but not very comfortable (sorry Dimos)

  • The field of wearable solar cells has been advancing though.  This is due to the rise in wearable technology.  That technology (apple watch) needs a power source. While most of the power sources currently are batteries that are charged by plugging them in, imagine how cool it would be to use solar power one day

  • A group out of the university of central Florida has been working on a flexible and low-cost photovoltaic (solar cell) device that is on a copper ribbon that can be woven into fabric and used for charging wearable devices

  • It integrates the solar cell with a supercapacitor it can work as an energy harvester and an energy storage device. 

  • I’m not going to go into the details of this since it is definitely not my field of expertise.  Despite being married to an electrical engineer for almost 20 years, I do not understand the ins and outs of his field.  

  • I do think it would be very cool to have a solar-charging wearable fabric though, especially one that can store the energy, kind of like a solar charged watch.

  • Wow - what an episode.  As usual, i did not expect to find so much cool science related to ribbons.  I hope you hung in there with me and learned a little something about protein folding, marine worms, or solar charging fabric


  • Proteins - building blocks of biological tissues, hair, etc

  • Organelles - organized and specialized structures in a cell

  • Supercapacitors - type of electrochemical energy storage device that have a lot of power density (can store a lot)

Fun Facts:

  • There are ribbons in your nervous system that help high-traffic signaling involved in seeing and hearing

  • The longest animal is a worm that measures up to 50m ~(164 feet)

  • We may soon have ribbons that contain solar cells and can power wearable technology

LuxeSci is a production of Erevna Media, produced by me, Dr. Lex.  Audio engineering by Dr. Dimos and our theme music is Harlequin Mood by Burdy.

We’re all over social media at LuxeSci Pod. Please drop us a line and say hi, we love to hear from you.  And don’t forget to share us with a friend.  We’d love to reach more people who would enjoy hearing about some luxurious science














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