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Calcitic microlenses as part of the photoreceptor system in brittlestars


Photosensitivity in most echinoderms has been attributed to ‘diffuse’ dermal receptors1,2,3. Here we report that certain single calcite crystals used by brittlestars for skeletal construction4,5 are also a component of specialized photosensory organs, conceivably with the function of a compound eye. The analysis of arm ossicles in Ophiocoma6 showed that in light-sensitive species, the periphery of the labyrinthic calcitic skeleton extends into a regular array of spherical microstructures that have a characteristic double-lens design. These structures are absent in light-indifferent species. Photolithographic experiments in which a photoresist film was illuminated through the lens array showed selective exposure of the photoresist under the lens centres. These results provide experimental evidence that the microlenses are optical elements that guide and focus the light inside the tissue. The estimated focal distance (4–7 µm below the lenses) coincides with the location of nerve bundles—the presumed primary photoreceptors. The lens array is designed to minimize spherical aberration and birefringence and to detect light from a particular direction. The optical performance is further optimized by phototropic chromatophores that regulate the dose of illumination reaching the receptors. These structures represent an example of a multifunctional biomaterial that fulfills both mechanical and optical functions.

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Figure 1: Appearance and skeletal structure of ophiocomid brittlestars.
Figure 2: Lithographic experiment showing the focusing ability of the lens layer.
Figure 3: Analysis of the focusing effect of the lens layer.
Figure 4: Transmission electron micrograph of the decalcified section of the DAP of O. wendtii.


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We thank P. Wiltzius and M. Megens for helpful discussions.

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Correspondence to Joanna Aizenberg.

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Aizenberg, J., Tkachenko, A., Weiner, S. et al. Calcitic microlenses as part of the photoreceptor system in brittlestars. Nature 412, 819–822 (2001).

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