Squid's Built-In Light to Inspire New Gadgets?

John Roach
for National Geographic News
January 8, 2004

A nocturnal squid that cruises the ocean around Hawaii for prey and mates uses a built-in flashlight to hide its shadow from predatory fish on the seafloor.

The unique light organ found in the Hawaiian bobtail squid (Euprymma scolopes) is composed of stacks of silvery reflector plates called reflectins that surround colonies of luminescent, symbiotic bacteria.

Scientists behind the find believe it may inspire a new generation of high-tech miniature gadgets.

"When you look at the [light organ reflector] under a microscope, it is composed of tens of thousands of these little platelets," said Wendy Crookes, a researcher at the Kewalo Marine Laboratory at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu and lead author of a study appearing in tomorrow's issue of the journal Science. "They look like little Frisbees just stacked in [columns]."

Understanding how these tiny reflectins are constructed may offer inspiration for nanotechnology designs in spectroscopy and optics, according to researchers.

Nanotechnology derives its name from a unit of measurement known as a nanometer, which is one billionth of a meter. A human hair is about 100,000 nanometers thick.

George Whitesides, a chemist at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who received the 2003 Kyoto Prize for pioneering advances in materials sciences related to nanostructures, said there is something to be learned from the reflectins.

Their further study may reveal "soft approaches to a world in which most of the materials science has been hard," he said.

Researchers hope to learn more about how the reflectivity of the squid's reflectins is turned on and off. "If we can figure out how that change occurs, you could create materials in which you could switch on and off the reflector," said Crookes.

Symbiotic Relationship

The ability of the bobtail squid to shine its light organ—which, in addition to the reflectins, contains a lens derived from muscle material—hinges on the luminescence of the symbiotic bacteria Vibrio fischeri.

Among the thousands of creatures swimming in the ocean, from bacteria and microorganisms to fish and other marine animals, Vibrio fishceri bacteria and bobtail squid apparently only have eyes for each other.

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