“For me, Newton and Darwin come together in these eyes,” said Gáspár Jékely, a neuroscientist at the University of Exeter who was not involved in the new study.
Earlier studies had given scientists hints that the scallop eye was weirdly complex. Each has a lens, a pair of retinas, and a mirror-like structure at the back. Scientists suspected that light passed through the lenses and the retinas, which are mostly transparent, bounced off the mirror, and struck the retinas on the return.
But no one knew how the mirror works, or why scallops needed two retinas when other animals need only one.
Benjamin A. Palmer, a postdoctoral researcher at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, and his colleagues recently used a powerful new tool known as a cryo-electron microscope to look at scallop eyes.
He and his colleagues froze slices of the eyes, making it possible to inspect the tissue down to its fine molecular details. (Last month, three pioneers of cryo-electron microscopy won the 2017 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.)
Researchers have long known that the mirror in a scallop eye is made from a molecule called guanine. It’s best known as one of the main ingredients of DNA, but in some animals guanine is packed into crystals that reflect light.
Some fish have a silvery tint to their scales thanks to guanine crystals. Chameleons use guanine crystals to help them change the color of their skin. But no one knew how guanine helped scallops to see.
Using cryo-electron microscopes, Dr. Palmer and his colleagues discovered that scallops make a kind of guanine crystal never seen before in nature: a flat square. “We were amazed,” he said. “We knew this would be something cool.”
The researchers found that the mirrors are made of twenty to thirty layers of guanine, each containing millions of squares that fit together snugly like tiles on a wall.
“To see that square tiling is completely new,” said Daniel I. Speiser, a visual ecologist at the University of South Carolina who was not involved in the study.
Dr. Palmer and his colleagues took X-rays of the scallop eyes to determine that these layers form a flat-bottomed bowl. The scientists created a computer model of the entire eye based on these findings, allowing them to trace the paths that light took as it bounced off the mirror.
Paradoxically, the guanine squares don’t reflect light on their own — they’re transparent. But their arrangement turns them into a collective mirror.
The layers of tiles are separated by thin layers of fluid, and as a ray of light passes through them, it gets bent further and further from its original direction. Eventually the light gets turned completely around, heading back toward the front of the eye.
This arrangement is well suited for underwater vision, the researchers found, because it is better at bouncing back some colors of light than others. “You have a mirror that basically reflects a hundred percent of the blue light it receives,” Dr. Palmer said. “It makes a lot of sense that it reflects all the light it has in its environment.”
The model created by Dr. Palmer and his colleagues may also solve the mystery of the two retinas. The researchers found that each retina receives sharply focused light from different parts of the animal’s field of view.
One retina can create a sharp image of what’s right in front of the eye. The other retina gives a better view of the periphery.
Dr. Palmer speculated that scallops might use each retina to face a different challenge in their lives.
The retina that sees the central field of view might allow scallops to quickly recognize oncoming predators, allowing them to beat a hasty retreat by swimming away.
Scallops may pay attention to their peripheral vision instead when they’re searching for a spot on the sea floor where they can settle down to feed.
Each eye, the new study demonstrates, is exquisitely complex. What’s more, the hundreds of eyes on a scallop all deliver signals to a single cluster of neurons, which may combine that information to create a rich picture of the outside world.
To Dr. Speiser, it all seems like overkill. Why does a fairly ordinary bivalve need Star Wars vision technology? “It’s still a puzzle why they see so well,” he said.
Dr. Palmer said that scallop eyes may provide inspirations for new inventions. There’s certainly precedent: NASA has built X-ray detectors to study black holes that mimic lobster eyes. Perhaps an artificial scallop eye could take pictures in dim seawater.
But Dr. Palmer is more excited by the prospect of creating materials that are new to engineering. His study shows that scallops have evolved a mastery over forming crystals, guiding them into shapes that researchers didn’t think possible.
At this point, no one has any idea yet how they do it. “Understanding that could open the door to much bigger things than just making a single device,” Dr. Palmer said.