Seeing the Brittlestar in a New Light
Perfect Microscopic Lenses Could Be Part of "All-Seeing Eye"

Start streaming audioHear the segment from All Things Considered

Aug. 22, 2001 -- Evolution apparently has enabled a sea creature to transform parts of its skeleton into an all-seeing eye -- and the discovery has prompted scientists to take a closer look at this seemingly humble aquatic animal.

Two examples of the brittlestar Ophiocoma wendtii
Photo: Joanna Aizenberg, Bell Laboratories/Lucent Technologies

 See a closeup of the brittlestar lenses

Researchers quoted in this week's edition of Nature have discovered that built into the skeletons of brittlestars -- animals similar to starfish, but much more mobile -- are arrays of near-perfect microscopic crystals that focus light.

Scientist Joanna Aizenberg of Bell Laboratories/Lucent Technologies in Murray Hill, New Jersey, working with marine biologist Gordon Hendler and a team of colleagues, discovered that tiny lenses on the surface of the brittlestar Ophiocoma wendtii focus light about five micrometers (5/1,000,000th of a meter) below the surface.

And just below the surface are bundles of nerves that the scientists believe pick up the light signal and transmit it to the animal's nervous system.

The report is careful not to say that the system of lenses and nerves is actually an eye or visual system -- but says the newly discovered feature "fulfills both mechanical and optical functions."

This presumed compound eye could be useful in detecting and escaping from predators by sensing shadows. If humans were able to replicate the precision of the brittlestar's "eye," it could lead to breakthroughs in optical computing and other fields.

"Once again we find that nature foreshadowed our technical developments," says Roy Sambles of the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom, in an article supporting the research.

Web Resources:

Nature Magazine online

Bell Laboratories/Lucent Technologies

Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County