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Green Templeton College | Oxford


Senior Visiting Research Research Fellow

BSc Liv, PhD Macquarie

E-mail Andrew Parker

Head of Research Team
Photonic structures and eyes: evolution, development and biomimetics



Main Research

Diversity and evolution of structural colour in nature

Since 1990, the variety of structural colour or “iridescence” in the diversity of animals and plants has been charted. New optical devices have been uncovered, and their evolutionary progression revealed. Optical devices in nature include: fibre-optics, holograms, liquid crystals, multilayer reflectors, mirrors, LEDs, diffraction gratings, antireflectors, polarization reflectors and microlens arrays.

Highlights include: identification of the first photonic crystal in nature (in the sea mouse Aphrodita, 2001); the discovery of the opal structure in a living organism (in a weevil, 2003); discovery of the original colours of ancient, extinct animals, up to 515 million years old (from the Burgess shale).




The evolution of eyes is examined. The first eyes on Earth (from the Cambrian period) are identified and analyzed using modern microscopic techniques.

Highlights include: discovery of the Light Switch Theory – that vision appeared on Earth around 543 million years ago and triggered the Cambrian explosion (evolution’s Big Bang). Here, the history of life is divided into two parts: pre-vision and vision. The rules of life were very different in each, hence there would have been behavioural and evolutionary chaos associated with the transition.

“As I see it…a predator (a trilobite) evolved for the first time a working visual system, and was so successful that the other organisms had to evolve hard parts to survive, which produced the so-called Cambrian explosion. [Parker’s] arguments seem very plausible to me.” Francis Crick on The Light Switch Theory, 2003.

Darwin’s concerns over the evolution of the eye are considered and explained.

How colour is perceived is nature is used as a tool for artists.




In the cell culture lab, living cells that make nanostructures involved in structural colour, and macrostructures involved in eyes (such as lenses), are examined using modern microscopic techniques. The physical phenomena involved in the natural engineering processes are revealed, including molecular self-assembly and the use of templates and moulds (involving intracellular structures). This is interpreted with the genetic codes to show how the physical phenomena can augment genetic mutation to impart non-incremental evolution.




See the article in National Geographic, April 2008, pages 68-91.

Inspiration is sought from evolution (nature’s “trial and error”). The designs of photonic devices found in nature are considered for commercial placements. Highlights include: a novel design of antireflector found on the eye of a 45 million year old fly has been transferred to the surface of solar panels, providing a 10% increase in energy capture.

The engineering mechanisms discovered within the cell culture work are considered as alternatives to current processes used within the optics industry.

Spin-off projects sometimes occur, because often, nature’s structures are bimodal or more; that is, the same structure can perform more than one function. Sometimes, while examining the optical properties of a device, an unrelated property can be revealed; for instance, while examining the infra-red properties of a Namibian beetle’s cuticle, a water-collecting device was discovered.

Design Patents: No. PCT/GB02/000671 – a water collection device based on a Namibian beetle (the device is under manufacture in the UK and in USA for extracting water from air conditioning systems). One of the Top 8 Scientific Achievements in the UK, NERC 2002.


Specialist animal group: Myodocopid ostracods (Crustacea)



Key scientific publications

Parker, A.R., Discovery of functional iridescence and its coevolution with eyes in the phylogeny of Ostracoda (Crustacea). Proceedings of the Royal Society of London: Biological Sciences (1995) 262, 349-355.

Parker, A.R., Colour in Burgess Shale animals and the effect of light on evolution in the Cambrian. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London: Biological Sciences (1998) 265, 967-972.

Parker, A.R., 515 Million years of structural colour. Journal of Optics A: Pure and Applied Optics (2000) 2, R15-28.

Parker, A.R., McPhedran, R.C., McKenzie, D.R., Botten, L.C. and Nicorovici, N.-A.P., Aphrodite’s iridescence. Nature (2001) 409, 36-37.

Parker, A.R. and Lawrence, C.R. Water capture from desert fogs by a Namibian beetle. Nature (2001) 414, 33-34.

Parker, A.R., Fluorescence of yellow budgerigars. Science (2002) 296, 655.

Parker, A.R.,Welch, V.L., Driver, D & Martini, N. An opal analogue discovered in a weevil. Nature (2003) 426, 786-787.

Parker, A.R. 2006. Conservative photonic crystals imply indirect transcription from genotype to phenotype. Recent Research Developments in Entomology 5, 1-10.

Parker, A.R. & Townley, H. E. 2007. Biomimetics of photonic nanostructures. Nature Nanotechnology 2, 347-353.


Popular science books

Parker, A.R. In the Blink of an Eye (2003). Simon & Schuster (London)/Perseus Press (Cambridge, USA + translations), 316pp.

Parker, A.R. 2005. Seven Deadly Colours. Simon & Schuster (London). 286pp.




Structural colour, vision, iridescence, optics, photonics, nanotechnology, biophysics, biomimetics, behaviour, mimicry, natural engineering, Cambrian, fossils, Burgess shale, evolution, development, EvoDevo, cell culture, genetics, Darwin, eyes, ostracod crustaceans, art.

Andrew Parker was one of the eight “Scientists for the New Century” selected by The Royal Institution (London) and The Times/Novartis in 2000.