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Cancer Detection Inspired by the Deadly Mantis Shrimp

Sep 30, 2014 03:56 PM EDT

The incredible compound eyes of the mantis shrimp can see a great number of things we can only dream of, and apparently that includes cancer. A team of researchers from Australia are suggesting that not only can mantis shrimp see a variety of cancerous tissues in the human body, but technology can be adapted to emulate this remarkable ability.

Justin Marshall, from the Queensland Brain Institute at the University of Queensland, was involved in some recent remarkable research that closely examined the capabilities of a mantis shrimp's "superbly tuned" compound eyes.

"We see color with hues and shades, and objects that contrast - a red apple in a green tree for example - but our research is revealing a number of animals that use polarized light to detect and discriminate between objects," he explained in a statement.

According to Marshall, his team found that in place of some tactile sensations, mantis shrimp can see the differences in surfaces and even tissues, noticing characteristics that humans wouldn't be able to detect until breaking out tools and science.

Even cancerous tissue, which normally is only identified with biopsy, apparently reflects polarized light differently than healthy tissue, meaning that it's very visible to the vibrantly colored shrimp. (Scroll to read on...)

And that's because (in a very basic explanation) mantis shrimp can see a whopping 16 base colors. By comparison, the color-receptive cones in human eyes can see only three base colors - blue, red, and green - from which every other color we see is derived.

If the vibrant rainbow humans see is based off a mere three types of cones, imagine what the world would look like with SIXTEEN of them! Suddenly seeing cancer doesn't seem like much of a surprise for the mantis shrimp.

Cancer Cam

But now so can we. According to a study recently published in the journal Proceedings of the IEEE, Marshall and his colleagues identified key components in mantis shrimp eyes that allow them to filter polarized light. They mimicked these components, called micro-villi, using aluminum nanowires and placed them on top of photodiodes, which convert light into electrical current.

But even after this process is complete, researchers still won't be able to see the unimaginable color spectrum that the shrimp see for themselves. Instead, they will just be able to see interrupted images indicating important differences in how polarized light reflects.

"It converts the invisible messages into colors that our visual system is comfortable with," Marshall explained.

Interestingly, this isn't the first time polarized light detection will be used in cancer identification. Current imaging systems use the same basic concept, but without the refined technologies inspired by the ocean's most incredible shrimp. They lack accuracy and require relatively large equipment, thereby limiting how such systems can be used.

By replicating the eyes of mantis shrimp, the scientists hope to improve upon existing technology to the point that it could even be incorporated into a smartphone, creating a Star Trek-like reality in which simply passing a handheld device over a person's body can detect the presence of a potentially life-threatening condition.

Inspiring War Machines, Too

Interestingly, if you were ever to meet a mantis shrimp for yourself, don't believe for a second that it would be some enlightened guru of the aquatic world just because it sees more beautiful colors than we do.

Popular internet cartoonist and nature-lover The Oatmeal once called the mantis shrimp an "undersea nightmare, and one of the most creatively violent animals on Earth." (Scroll to read on...)

The shrimp boasts two "fists" that fold much like the claws of a praying mantis (hence the name). Observations of this remarkable creature have shown that using these appendages, the shrimp can throw punches with 1,500 newtons of force - so strong that they cause tiny undersea shockwaves that kill prey even if the "fist" doesn't make contact.

And because of this incredible predation strategy, the fists themselves have to be incredibly tough to withstand the full force of impact. In fact, research is currently being funded by the US Air Force to investigate the makeup of these super tough fists, in the hopes of one day replicating the material to craft light-but resilient aircraft and even body armor.

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