Animal Eyes Provide High-Tech Optical Inspiration

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
December 5, 2005

Today's cutting-edge optical technologies could progress by leaps and bounds if scientists can better imitate animal-eye evolution spanning billions of years, two bioengineers report.

Using biology as inspiration, scientists hope to make advances in optics that would enhance camera and video technology, surveillance systems, missile defense, remote navigation, and even human vision aids.

"It's amazing to see the beauty of nature and see if we can apply this to everyday life," said Luke Lee, a bioengineer at the University of California, Berkeley.

Lee and Berkeley colleague Robert Szema wrote on the state of animal-eye optics research in a recent issue of the journal Science.

In his lab, Lee is refining three-dimensional polymer structures that can mimic the components of an eye, from lenses to light receptors. He believes soft, flexible polymers may be the key to replicating natural sight systems that outperform their mechanized competition.

"Many, many biologists have studied animals' eyes," Lee said. "Some of those studies are decades old. But they didn't have the tools to make the artificial structures that are now possible.

"[Now is] really a good time to figure out how to make complex three-dimensional structures, like compound eyes."

Flexible Camera Lenses?

Sight works when eyes admit light and focus the rays on some type of detector so that the brain can recognize images. Nature has many ways of accomplishing this goal depending on a critter's needs and habitat.

Humans have camera-type eyes, as do many fish, birds, and reptiles. These eyes use a single lens to focus images onto a light detector called a retina.

The human eye focuses at different distances by using tiny muscles to change the curvature of the eye's flexible crystalline lens. Changing the lens's curvature changes the focal length, so that images at different distances appear in focus.

Other animals use more unusual techniques adapted to their lifestyles.

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