All the better to see you with, No, not wolves, but starfish (crosspost)

Date: Fri Aug 24 2001 - 03:38:12 BST

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    Subject: All the better to see you with, No, not wolves, but starfish (crosspost)
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    > At least as far back as Roger Bacon in the 1200s, humans have
    > attempted to grind better, more accurate lenses for glasses and
    > microscopes. Lenses continue to play an integral role in modern
    > telecommunications, from sending coded laser transmissions over fiber
    > optic cables to microscopically incising circuitry on silicon chips.
    > But all of this dims in comparison to evolution, which has endowed a
    > simple invertebrate with the most accurate lenses yet discovered. And
    > the potential of these lenses tech, once applied, could be enormous.
    > Scientists from Lucent Technologies' Bell Labs have discovered that
    > chalk-like calcite crystals in the skeletons of marine creatures known
    > as brittlestars have a remarkable dual function, acting as armor as
    > well as optical receptors for an all-seeing compound eye.
    > They say that studies of this novel multifunctional biomaterial may
    > lead to better-designed optical elements for telecommunications
    > networks.
    > The surprising discovery that brittlestars use calcitic crystals to
    > act as optical detectors, in addition to providing skeletal support,
    > was made by an international multidisciplinary team of researchers,
    > comprising scientists from Bell Labs, the Weizmann Institute of
    > Science in Israel and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles
    > County, and is described in an article in Nature ["Biophysics:
    > Dual-function biomaterial in focus", Alexei Tkachenko and Joanna
    > Aizenberg of Bell Labs, Steve Weiner and Lia Addadi of the Weizmann
    > Institute of Science and Gordon Hendler of the Natural History Museum
    > of Los Angeles County, Nature 412, 819-822, 23 August 2001] (Refer
    > for a
    > synopsis).
    > "This is an excellent example of something we can learn from nature,"
    > said Federico Capasso, physical research vice president at Bell Labs.
    > "These tiny calcite crystals are nearly perfect optical microlenses,
    > much better than any we manufacture today."
    > Brittlestars, also known as serpent stars, are marine invertebrates
    > that usually have five thin long arms emanating from a small,
    > disk-shaped body. They belong to the phylum of echinoderms, which also
    > includes starfish, sea urchins and other related classes of marine
    > organisms.
    > The analysis of bony structures in the arms of the brittlestar
    > Ophiocoma wendtii showed the presence of a regular array of spherical
    > microstructures that look like lenses. Experiments subsequently showed
    > that these microstructures, which are absent in closely-related but
    > light-indifferent species of brittlestars, were indeed sophisticated
    > optical elements that have the optimal design for focusing light.
    > The lenses focus light about 5 microns below their surface. Nerve
    > bundles running through the skeleton underneath the lenses are thought
    > to pick up the light signal. Acting together, thousands of calcite
    > crystals form a kind of primitive compound eye that covers much of the
    > organism's body, and researchers think this must be useful in
    > detecting and escaping from predators.
    > The calcite microlenses compensate for birefringence and spherical
    > aberration - physical effects common in lenses that distort light -
    > and scientists hope to mimic nature's success and design microlenses
    > based on the brittlestar model. Such biomimetic lenses may prove
    > useful as components of optical networks, and in chip design, where
    > they could potentially improve optical lithography techniques.
    > "Biomimetics builds on nature's expertise," said John Rogers, director
    > of nanotechnology research at Bell Labs. "In this case, a relatively
    > simple organism has a solution to a very complex problem in optics and
    > materials design."
    > In an accompanying commentary in the same issue of Nature, independent
    > expert Roy Sambles of the University of Exeter, UK, wrote, "Once again
    > we find that nature foreshadowed our technical development."
    > "I have always been fascinated with nature's ability to perfect
    > materials," said Joanna Aizenberg, the Bell Labs scientist who led the
    > international research team of materials scientists, physicists,
    > chemists and biologists. "The more you study biological organisms the
    > more you realize how much there is to be learned from them."

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