This unit will focus on how light (and in some cases electrons) travel through both empty space and matter as well as how those interactions can be used to manipulate the paths and make . The most familiar optical system to most of you is the one you are probably using to read these very words: your eyes! We will therefore be looking at the eye quite a bit throughout this unit, both human eyes and simpler eyes in the animal kingdom. Another common biological application of optics is the microscope. To make sure that everyone is on the same page, you will find below some information about the anatomy of the human eye as well as some basic information about microscopes. Please be familiar with this terminology as we will use it in class.
The Human Eye. Derived from 36.5 Vision by OpenStax Biology
is the ability to detect light patterns from the outside environment and interpret them into images. Animals are bombarded with sensory information, and the sheer volume of visual information can be problematic. Fortunately, the visual systems of species have evolved to attend to the most-important stimuli. The importance of vision to humans is further substantiated by the fact that about one-third of the human cerebral cortex is dedicated to analyzing and perceiving visual information.
Anatomy of the Eye
Problem 1: Identify the portion of the eye responsible for most of the focusing of light.
Problem 2: What is the purpose of the iris?
Transduction of Light
The rods and cones are the site of transduction of light to a neural signal. Both rods and cones contain photopigments. In vertebrates, the main photopigment, , has two main parts (Figure 4) an opsin, which is a membrane protein (in the form of a cluster of α-helices that span the membrane), and retinal—a molecule that absorbs light. When light hits a photoreceptor, it causes a shape change in the retinal, altering its structure from a bent (cis) form of the molecule to its linear (trans) isomer. This isomerization of retinal activates the rhodopsin, starting a cascade of events that ends with the closing of Na+ channels in the membrane of the photoreceptor. Thus, unlike most other sensory neurons (which become depolarized by exposure to a stimulus) visual receptors become hyperpolarized and thus driven away from threshold (Figure 5).
There are three types of cones (with different photopsins), and they differ in the wavelength to which they are most responsive, as shown in Figure 6 . Some cones are maximally responsive to short light waves of 420 nm, so they are called S cones (“S” for “short”); others respond maximally to waves of 530 nm (M cones, for “medium”); a third group responds maximally to light of longer wavelengths, at 560 nm (L, or “long” cones). With only one type of cone, color vision would not be possible, and a two-cone (dichromatic) system has limitations. Primates use a three-cone (trichromatic) system, resulting in full color vision. The color we perceive is a result of the ratio of activity of our three types of cones. The colors of the visual spectrum, running from long-wavelength light to short, are red (700 nm), orange (600 nm), yellow (565 nm), green (497 nm), blue (470 nm), indigo (450 nm), and violet (425 nm). Humans have very sensitive perception of color and can distinguish about 500 levels of brightness, 200 different hues, and 20 steps of saturation, or about 2 million distinct colors.
Visual signals leave the cones and rods, travel to the bipolar cells, and then to ganglion cells. A large degree of processing of visual information occurs in the retina itself, before visual information is sent to the brain.
Photoreceptors in the retina continuously undergo . That is, they are always slightly active even when not stimulated by light. In neurons that exhibit tonic activity, the absence of stimuli maintains a firing rate at a baseline; while some stimuli increase firing rate from the baseline, and other stimuli decrease firing rate. In the absence of light, the bipolar neurons that connect rods and cones to ganglion cells are continuously and actively inhibited by the rods and cones. Exposure of the retina to light hyperpolarizes the rods and cones and removes their inhibition of bipolar cells. The now active bipolar cells in turn stimulate the ganglion cells, which send action potentials along their axons (which leave the eye as the optic nerve). Thus, the visual system relies on change in retinal activity, rather than the absence or presence of activity, to encode visual signals for the brain. Sometimes horizontal cells carry signals from one rod or cone to other photoreceptors and to several bipolar cells. When a rod or cone stimulates a horizontal cell, the horizontal cell inhibits more distant photoreceptors and bipolar cells, creating lateral inhibition. This inhibition sharpens edges and enhances contrast in the images by making regions receiving light appear lighter and dark surroundings appear darker. Amacrine cells can distribute information from one bipolar cell to many ganglion cells.
You can demonstrate this using an easy demonstration to “trick” your retina and brain about the colors you are observing in your visual field. Look fixedly at Figure 7 for about 45 seconds. Then quickly shift your gaze to a sheet of blank white paper or a white wall. You should see an afterimage of the Norwegian flag in its correct colors. At this point, close your eyes for a moment, then reopen them, looking again at the white paper or wall; the afterimage of the flag should continue to appear as red, white, and blue. What causes this? According to an explanation called opponent process theory, as you gazed fixedly at the green, black, and yellow flag, your retinal ganglion cells that respond positively to green, black, and yellow increased their firing dramatically. When you shifted your gaze to the neutral white ground, these ganglion cells abruptly decreased their activity and the brain interpreted this abrupt downshift as if the ganglion cells were responding now to their “opponent” colors: red, white, and blue, respectively, in the visual field. Once the ganglion cells return to their baseline activity state, the false perception of color will disappear.
The apparent reproduction of an object, formed by an optical element (or collection of them) reflecting and/or refracting light.
sense of sight
layer of photoreceptive and supporting cells on the inner surface of the back of the eye
The transparent layer over the front of the eye that helps focus light waves. Most of the focusing of the eye actually happens at the cornea, not in the lens.
The transparent, convex structure behind the cornea that helps focus light waves on the retina. The lens is for the fine-tuning.
The pigmented, circular muscle at the front of the eye that regulates the amount of light entering the eye.
The small opening at the front of the eye though which light enters. Appears black (or red in flash photographs!). The size is controlled by the iris.
Visual defect in which the image focus falls behind the retina, thereby making images in the distance clear, but close-up images blurry; caused by age-based changes in the lens.
Visual defect in which the image focus falls behind the retina, thereby making images in the distance clear, but close-up images blurry.
Visual defect in which the image focus falls in front of the retina, thereby making images in the distance blurry, but close-up images clear
Strongly photosensitive, achromatic, cylindrical neuron in the outer edges of the retina that detects dim light and is used in peripheral and nighttime vision. Can only see in black and white.
A set of weakly photosensitive, cone-shaped neurons in the fovea of the retina that detects bright light and is used in daytime color vision. There are cones responsible for red light, green light, and blue light.
region in the center of the retina with a high density of photoreceptors and which is responsible for acute vision
main photopigment in vertebrates
in a neuron, slight continuous activity while at rest