Brittlestars use crystal lenses to spot approaching predators unique visual system is the first of its kind to be discovered in animals inhabiting the earth today

Rehovot, Israel--August 22, 2001--Brittlestars of the species Ophiocoma wendtii form crystal lenses in their skeletons that allow them to spot approaching predators, according to a study reported in Nature on August 23. This unique visual system is the first of its kind to be discovered in animals inhabiting the earth today. The discovery is a result of a collaborative study conducted by researchers from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, from Bell Laboratories/Lucent Technologies in New Jersey, and from the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County in Los Angeles, California.

Brittlestars, also known as serpent stars, are marine invertebrates that usually have five thin long arms emanating from a small, disk-shaped body. They belong to the phylum of echinoderms, which also includes sea urchins, sea cucumbers, starfish, and several other classes of marine animals.

Over the past few years, Prof. Lia Addadi, dean of the Weizmann Institutes Chemistry Faculty, and Prof. Steve Weiner, of the Institutes Structural Biology Department, have conducted a series of studies examining ways in which animals build their skeletons. The scientists have revealed that animals produce different types of proteins, some of which control crystal formation.

The idea for the current study was born when the Institute scientists met with Dr. Gordon Hendler of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. Dr. Hendler brought their attention to one particular species of brittlestars, Ophiocoma wendtii; he had found that this species, which appears to be particularly sensitive to light, can change its color. Even though these animals have no specialized eyes, they are capable of detecting shadows and quickly escaping from predators into dark crevices. Hendler suspected that the arrays of spherical crystal structures on the surface of its outer skeleton serve as lenses that transmit light to the brittlestars nervous system. This hypothesis

Contact: Jeffrey Sussman
American Committee for the Weizmann Institute of Science

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