Mantis shrimp eyes are inspiring the design of new cameras that can detect a variety of cancers and visualise brain activity.

QBI research published in the journal Proceedings of the IEEE found that the mantis shrimp’s compound eyes are superbly tuned to detect polarised light, providing a streamlined framework for technology to mimic.

Professor Justin Marshall said cancerous tissue reflected polarised light differently to healthy tissue.

“Humans can’t see this, but a mantis shrimp could walk up to it and hit it,” he said.

“We see colour 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 polarised light to detect and discriminate between objects.

“The camera we’ve developed in close collaboration with US and UK scientists shoots video and could provide immediate feedback on detecting cancer and monitoring the activity of exposed nerve cells.”

Professor Marshall said current scopes and imaging systems used polarised light to detect cancer, but the shrimp-inspired technology aimed to improve and widen these non-invasive detection methods, reducing the need for biopsies and guiding surgical procedures.

“Polarised sunglasses are the most common technology we use every day, to reduce glare from water and wet roads,” he said.

“They work because reflected light from these surfaces is polarised one way and the glasses are polarised the other.

“Even with polarising sunnies, the level of sensitivity needed to see neurons fire and reveal cancerous tissue is right at our current limit.

“Nature has come up with elegant and efficient design principles, so we are combining the mantis shrimp’s millions of years of evolution—nature’s engineering—with our relatively few years of work with the technology.”

Theoretically, the research could lead to the redesign of smartphone cameras, allowing people to self-monitor for cancers and reduce the burden on health systems, Professor Marshall said.

Researchers from Washington University, the Washington University School of Medicine, the University of Maryland Baltimore County and the University of Bristol are working with QBI to develop the hardware behind the technology.