Seeing the unseen: How Butterflies can Help Scientists Detect Cancer
Published:19 Nov.2023    Source:University of Illinois Grainger College of Engineering

Inspired by the enhanced visual system of the Papilio xuthus butterfly, a team of researchers have developed an imaging sensor capable of "seeing" into the UV range inaccessible to human eyes. The design of the sensor uses stacked photodiodes and perovskite nanocrystals (PNCs) capable of imaging different wavelengths in the UV range. Using the spectral signatures of biomedical markers, such as amino acids, this new imaging technology is even capable of differentiating between cancer cells and normal cells with 99% confidence.


Humans have trichromatic vision with three photoreceptors, where every color perceived can be made from a combination of red, green and blue. Butterflies, however, have compound eyes, with six (or more) photoreceptor classes with distinct spectral sensitivities. In particular, the Papilio xuthus, a yellow, Asian swallowtail butterfly, has not only blue, green and red, but also violet, ultraviolet and broadband receptors. Further, butterflies have fluorescent pigments that allow them to convert UV light into visible light which can then be easily sensed by their photoreceptors. This allows them to perceive a broader range of colors and details in their environment.


Researchers believe that There are many other species besides butterflies capable of seeing in the UV, and having a way to detect that light will provide interesting opportunities for biologists to learn more about these species, such as their hunting and mating habits. Bringing the sensor underwater can help bring a greater understanding of that environment as well. While a lot of UV is absorbed by water, there is still enough that makes it through to have an impact and there are many animals underwater that also see and use UV light.