Cuttlefish 'may be key to revolutionary camouflage technology in future'
Cuttlefish, who hunt at night and are master of disguise, may have value beyond the sea as new research is starting to show that cuttlefish and their squid cousins may hold the key to the creation of new kinds of camouflage to mask clothes, vehicles and even buildings.
Unlike any other animal, cuttlefish and squid use light to blend into or stand out from their surroundings.
Marine scientists believe that they do this using tiny sensors all over their skin that enable them to change colour without sending messages to the brain. Exactly how this works is still a mystery.
Roger Hanlon, a senior scientist at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, is collaborating with bioengineers across the U.S. to develop a material that mimics this camouflage mechanism.
The material might be able to hide objects or change the tint of a car. It could even keep buildings cool in the summer and warm in the winter by darkening their exteriors to absorb heat and lightening them to reflect it.
In 2010, Hanlon and Lydia Mathger, a fellow researcher at his lab, published a study showing that the same gene that produces light-sensing molecules in the retina is distributed throughout the skin of cuttlefish.
The researchers discovered this gene, for a protein called opsin, concentrated near chromatophores - tiny organs that consist of an elastic sac of red, yellow or black pigment tied to muscle fibres.
The scientists believe that the protein senses light and the chromatophores alter skin colour. Opsin may be acting on its own without brain signals and may be somehow connected to the chromatophores.
Mathger thinks the presence of opsin may mean that the otherwise colourblind cuttlefish can "see" a multicoloured environment through their skin. But Hanlon and other scientists at Woods Hole and elsewhere are still trying to prove the connection.
Alexandra Kingston, a biology graduate student at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, is exploring the role of opsin in a relative of the cuttlefish: the long-finned squid. Kingston has found the protein all over the squid's skin, and she is now looking for retinochrome, another protein that switches opsin on and off.
"It's a recycling mechanism for the opsin," the Japan Times quoted Kingston as saying.
"We have the opsin molecules, but do they have the (light-sensing) cells? That's what we are working on right now," Kingston added.