Extreme Vision: Ultimate Designs in Animal Optics

Lead Research Organisation: University of Bristol
Department Name: Biological Sciences


Vision is the most fundamental of the senses, and it is exciting to imagine how the world appears to other animals. Imagine what seeing in 4 colours looks like? Whilst we understand some of the incredible visual abilities animals possess, such as ultra-violet vision or using mirrors instead of a lens, there are some remarkable visual adaptations that remain unsolved. The aim of my research is to discover the basis of some extraordinary unexplained visual capabilities in the animal kingdom. This is an important area of biology. Understanding how animals view and interact with their world is of elemental significance. Also, discovering the underlying principles behind such unusual capabilities has often led to new breakthroughs in technology. For example, learning how lobsters use reflecting mirrors in their eyes inspired new designs for telescopes. Ultimately, how properties of cells influence animal behavior is of great importance. In my proposed fellowship, I want to focus on the following two areas of vision research, which I believe are both timely and important and also compliment my research skills. Vision in the depths of the ocean is intriguing. In addition to the extreme cold and huge pressure, sunlight only penetrates to a quarter of the average ocean depth and the only usable light is bioluminescence. Many animals have evolved incredibly complex eyes to cope with this harsh physical and visual environment. However, we do not understand how such conditions affect vision in deep sea animals. I will be the first to understand this, by discovering how the light sensitive cells in deep sea eyes truly function when placed under real extreme temperatures and pressures. This work will provide us with a complete and unprecedented understanding into this important area of animal vision. The second theme in my research will examine the reasons behind a sensational new discovery. Recently, an animal called a mantis shrimp was shown to possess a cell within its eye that can precisely manipulate light far better than any man-made optics. However, how the cell does this remains a mystery. Some preliminary work I have done suggests how a combination of the cells structure and optical properties could be responsible for this capability. I will completely solve this problem and drive a new direction in animal vision research. I not only have both the proven expertise and skills to accomplish this goal, but I also already have existing working collaborations with Prof. Justin Marshall, UQ, Aus and Prof. Thomas Cronin, UMBC, USA. They were the principal investigators in the original discovery and such international support in this project will help ensure its success and high impact. Another important part of this work is its relevance to industrial applications. Such an efficient, man-made optical device does not currently exist but could be hugely beneficial to a range of scientific research. Discovering this mechanism would be of considerable interest to many optical scientists. In summary, the requested fellowship would allow me to discover some of the exciting, true visual capabilities of life in the largest and most diverse habitat on Earth.

Technical Summary

The aim of my research is to discover the mechanisms that underlie extraordinary, unexplained visual capabilities in the animal kingdom. In a wider context, understanding the mechanisms that control biological function and ultimately animal behavior is of elemental importance. I want to address specific timely research questions, focusing on two research areas: deep sea vision and circular polarization vision. Extreme pressure, darkness and cold have driven remarkable adaptations in deep sea animals, e.g. tubular eyes, multi-tiered retina and mirror focusing optics. However no work has yet investigated the fundamental effects of high hydrostatic pressure and low temperature on visual function. I will be the first to do this, using a suite of complimentary techniques such as microspectrophotometry, fast spectroscopy, lipid composition analysis and small angle X-ray scattering to measure optical and bio-physical properties as a function of physiological pressures and temperatures. Example outcomes will be the measure of homeoviscous adaptation and increased knowledge of opsin lipid interactions in the visual system. Bio-photonic structures demonstrate model aspects of evolution with biological optics able to precisely manipulate light (e.g. colour and polarization) far better than man-made systems. Recent discoveries of achromatic retarders in invertebrate photoreceptors represent a new system unknown to optical physics. As yet though, the mechanism remains a mystery. In some preliminary work, I have discovered that with a biologically realistic combination of optical dispersion, intrinsic and form birefringence, it is possible to create such an achromatic quarter-wave plate. Therefore, during this fellowship I will take a multi-disciplinary approach to conclusively prove this mechanism using techniques such as electron microscopy, computer modeling and polarization measurements and thereby pioneer this new area of circular polarization in vision research.


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Description There have been numerous significant findings out of this fellowship regarding

1) discoveries of new optical principles
2) discoveries of how vision became adapted to the deep oceans
3) innovations of better camera systems based on how animals see
Exploitation Route It has - lots of other groups around the world are using the techniques we have developed and several PhD students have successfully graduated carrying on further studies.
Sectors Aerospace, Defence and Marine

URL http://www.ecologyofvision.com
Description The creation of a new company by a former postdoc of mine - Azul Optics - inventing, developing and now selling a new product for the measurement of macular pigment density. Shelby won the BBSRC Innovator of the Year award in 2017 See - https://bbsrc.ukri.org/research/impact/azul-optics-from-visual-ecology-to-human-health/ Nick Roberts was awarded a 325k BBSRC responsive mode grant to investigate how vertebrates see the polarization of light. From the work on this grant the following paper was published Temple, S. E., McGregor, J. E., Miles, C., Graham, L., Miller, J., Buck, J., Scott-Samuel, N. E., Roberts, N. W. Perceiving polarization with the naked eye: characterization of human polarization sensitivity. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 282(1811), 20150338, 2015. LINK Dr Shelby Temple who was the post doc on the grant took an idea from this study and went onto develop a new device that is able to measure the density of pigment in a part of the eye known as the macula. Low macular pigment density is one of the risk factors for age-related macular degeneration (AMD), which affects more than two million people in the UK and can result in the loss of central vision. The device can be used during regular eye examinations to provide patients with extra information about eye health and lifestyle changes that can help reduce the likelihood of developing AMD, or slow progression of the disease. The researchers also received funding from iCure programme, Innovate UK and HEFCE, and a BBSRC/Royal Society of Edinburgh Enterprise Fellowship.
First Year Of Impact 2017
Sector Healthcare,Pharmaceuticals and Medical Biotechnology
Impact Types Societal,Economic