HOUSTON -- (Dec. 9, 2010) -- Nanotechnologists, marine biologists and signal-processing experts from Rice University, the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass., and other U.S. universities have won a $6 million grant from the Office of Naval Research to unlock the secrets of nature's best camouflage artists. Ultimately, the team hopes to create "metamaterials" that emulate some of the elegant skin colors and patterns produced by marine animals.
"Our internal nickname for this project is 'squid skin,' but it is really about fundamental research," said Naomi Halas, a nano-optics pioneer at Rice and the principal investigator on the four-year grant. "Our deliverable is knowledge -- the basic discoveries that will allow us to make materials that are observant, adaptive and responsive to their environment."
Halas said the project was inspired by the groundbreaking work of grant co-investigator Roger Hanlon, a Woods Hole marine biologist who has spent more than three decades studying the class of animals called cephalopods that includes the squid, octopus and cuttlefish. One of Hanlon's many discoveries is that cephalopod skins contain opsins, the same type of light-sensing proteins that function in eyes.
"The presence of opsin means they have some primitive vision sensor embedded in their skin," Halas said. "So the questions we have are, 'What can we, as engineers, learn from the way these animals perceive light and color? Do their brains play a part, or is this totally downloaded into the skin so it's not using animal CPU time?"
Halas said the project has several tracks. The team's marine biologists -- Hanlon and Thomas Cronin of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County -- will investigate how cephalopods sense and use light to regulate their skin's patterns, colors and contrasts.
"This project will enable us to explore an exciting new avenue of vision research -- distributed light sensing throughou
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