Optical Properties of Cephalopod Skin

As my first post on this blog, I want to give some background into what I’m researching here at UCSB. The title of my project is a bit of a mouthful: “Optical Properties of Cephalopod Skin.” But what is a cephalopod, and why are its skin’s interactions with light so interesting? What applications could research into this area yield?

Cephalopods are the family of animals that include octopuses, cuttlefish, and squid; a group of sea animals with tentacles that tastes good in sushi and may be able to predict the outcome of soccer matches, to common knowledge. But one of the most interesting yet oft-forgotten traits of cephalopods is their unique capacity for disguise. Forget about chameleons! Cephalopods change their coloration and pattern within a few seconds to blend into any oceanic backdrop with an ease and efficiency that is unmatched. How well can they do it? Check out this linked video, taken by Roger Hanlon at MBL, which demonstrates their uncanny skill:

So how do they do it? Cephalopods utilize a variety of techniques to blend in with their environments, but the one that my research is focused on is the chromatophore system. Chromatophores are sacs filled with pigment which are controlled muscularly; the muscles connected to the sac can contract to pull the sac taut into a sheet that is over an order of magnitude in size larger and thus gives the appearance of coloration. Through a mere twitch of a few muscles, a cephalopod can go from translucent to fully-colored in seconds. The beauty of this system lies in its simplicity: a noncomplex mechanically-controlled set of pigment sacs provides some of the most versatile and adept camouflage in nature. Studying this rapid, simple yet effective biological mechanism could inspire a variety of human-made adaptive optical technologies: anything from display screens to dynamic camouflage could be devised using a cephalopod model.

The question that my research is trying to address is, do these chromatophores possess unique or intriguing optical properties; that is, do they react to light in interesting and unusual ways that might reveal more about how the system as a whole is so effective? Essentially, we are addressing a biological issue from a physics-oriented point of view, treating the chromatophores and skin as a material to characterize. By applying optical techniques to an open-ended biological question, we may discover new and exciting information that may be used to inspire astounding technological advances.

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Student Contributors
Alex Iteen is a second year student majoring in Biology. He is interested in bioengineering and synthetic biology. He is currently working in Dr. Fygenson's lab on DNA nanotubes.
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David Wallace is a third year student majoring in Biochemistry/Molecular Biology. He is currently working in Professor Weimbs's lab studying the pathogenic mechanisms of Autosomal Dominant Polycystic Kidney Disease (ADPKD).
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Eneida Chesnut is a senior majoring in chemical engineering. She transferred from SBCC, where she studied chemistry. She works with organic materials for solar cells and is very interested in renewable energy research.
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Erzsebet is a second year chemical engineering major. She is interested in biotechnology and biophysics, and is working in Professor David Awschalom's lab investigating how cephalopod skin responds to different types of stimulation by light.
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Madison Cornwell is a second year student majoring in Biochemistry and Spanish. She is a EUREKA intern through the California NanoSystems Institute and the Resident Assistant of the Women in Science and Technology House in Manzanita Village. She will be working closely with Dr. Kosik and graduate student Israel Hernandez for the remainder of her time at UCSB.
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