Pioneering discoveries about the ‘extraordinarily strange’ visual systems ofshrimps – that could improve early detection of cancer – have been recognisedwith an international prize.

University of Queensland researcher Professor Justin Marshall shared the RankPrize for Optoelectronics with long-term colleague Professor Tom Cronin fromUniversity of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Optoelectronics focuses on light-emitting or light-detecting devices, and thepair has revealed that the mantis shrimp is the most complex ‘light detector’in the animal kingdom.

“We’ve received a prize for describing weirdness beyond our wildest dreams,”Professor Marshall said.

“With 12 colour channels, mantis shrimps have more detectors for the rainbowof colours than any other animal we know of, and many more than people whoonly have a meagre three—red, green and blue.

“This large number of colour channels enables mantis shrimps to identifycolours more speedily than us and to see the ultraviolet (UV) part of thespectrum, to which we are totally blind.”

Professor Marshall, from UQ’s Queensland Brain Institute said mantis shrimpcould also see circular polarisation, a very bizarre and esoteric form oflight usually confined to physics books and optoelectronic engineering.

“It has been difficult for human technology to separate the different coloursof circular polarised light, while the mantis shrimp has been doing it formillennia,” he said.

“Cancer can be detected with polarised light systems because cells around thecancer reflect polarised light differently.

“We hope that through optical engineering solutions inspired from theseremarkable animals, we can improve that vital early detection.”

Professors Marshall and Cronin have also shared their mantis shrimpdiscoveries with collaborators to improve technologies in satellite camerasand under water navigation.

For the shrimps, the way they perceive colour and light is about survival.

“These ‘superpowers’ are used for communication – basically sex and violence,”Professor Marshall said.

“Whether it is arguing over territory or attracting a mate—males communicateusing markings on their tail that reflect and alter polarised light, andfemales can detect it using a unique receptor which manipulates the incominglight rays.”

Despite the distance that separates them, Professors Marshall and Cronin havebeen working together for more than 30 years.

“Our first research together was featured on the front cover of the journalNature in 1989, and we decided to keep a good thing going, and have continuedto publish our work jointly,” Professor Marshall said.

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