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Thursday, 12 December, 2002, 08:48 GMT
Sea creature offers clearer vision
Brittlestar image courtesy of Lucent Technologies' Bell Labs
Creature covered in chalk-like calcite crystals
A tiny sea creature could hold the key for better cameras.

Researchers in the US are studying a relative of the starfish, known as a brittlestar, whose arms are covered with perfect lenses.

The lenses provide the brittlestar with all-round vision. Scientists say they are better than any optical devices developed in the lab.

"Instead of trying to come up with new ideas and technology, we can learn from this marine creature," said Joanna Aizenberg of Lucent Technologies' Bell Labs.

Lenses everywhere

The remarkable vision of the brittlestar is due to thousands of chalk-like calcite crystals in its skeleton.

Joanna Aizenberg of Lucent Technologies' Bell Labs
Aizenberg: Learning from nature
These serve as armour as well as acting together as an all-seeing eye which allows the brittlestar to spot and escape predators.

Since discovering the unique qualities of the creature a year ago, the researchers have been looking into its potential uses in the world of technology.

"These lenses surround the whole body, looking in all different directions and providing peripheral vision to the organism," Dr Aizenberg told the BBC programme Go Digital.

"This is the quality we all want to incorporate in optical devices, in cameras in particular.

"Instead of having one lens pointing in one direction, you could have thousands of lenses pointing in different directions," she explained. "This will give you perhaps a 360-degree view of the whole space."

Light focus

The brittlestar could also inspire the communication networks of the future.

Most of the optic fibre in the world today is used in the telecommunications industry to carry voice and data communications from exchange to exchange.

Lenses are used to focus and redirect light which carries digital ones and zeros down a link.

Scientists believe the brittlestar can teach them how to do this more effectively, potentially increasing the amount of information that can be sent through optical fibres.

"These creatures are able to focus light about 20 times better than any manufactured lenses that we have now," said Dr Aizenberg.

"So we can learn how to make lenses to concentrate light 10 or 20 times better for use in optical communications."

See also:

13 Oct 02 | Technology
25 Sep 02 | Technology
28 Oct 02 | dot life
23 Aug 02 | Science/Nature
03 Jan 01 | Science/Nature
14 Nov 99 | Science/Nature
07 Apr 00 | Scotland
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