A team of biohackers from California successfully induced a temporary sense of night vision by injecting a simple chemical cocktail directly onto the eye.
Incredibly, it allowed other scientists to see over 160 feet in the dark for a brief period of time. The group, called Science for the Masses, wanted to see if a kind of chemical chlorophyll analog—Chlorin e6 (or Ce6)—would create the expected effect.
This chemical mixture is found in some deep-sea fish and is often used to treat cancer and night blindness. The compound works by influencing the way the retina’s light-sensing rods work in the dark.
For the experiment, biochemistry researcher Gabriel Licina volunteered to be the guinea pig.
Group member Jeffrey Tibbetts dribbled 50 microliters of Ce6 into Licina’s opened eyes, aiming for the conjunctival sac, which delivers the compound to the retina.
“You can see the black smudge of a little bit of solution on my face where a bit dripped out,” said Licina. “If it looks like my eyes hurt, they did. I think that was just from the speculum, though.”
The members of Science for the Masses ran through several tests using different distances and backgrounds, though Licina was forced to wear sunglasses indoors to counter the effects of the interior lighting.
During the experiment, Licina was able to recognize people up to 50 m (164 ft) away in a wooded area, even in total darkness.
“To me, it was a quick, greenish-black blur across my vision”, said Licina, “and then it dissolved into my eyes.”
This has not been previously tested on humans; however, it had been tested on rats before.
“There are a fair amount of papers talking about having it injected in models like rats, and it’s been used intravenously since the ’60s as a treatment for different cancers,” said the lab’s medical officer, Jeffrey Tibbetts. “After doing the research, you have to take the next step.”
There might be a plausible explanation to how all this Bio-Night Vision came about. It begins with the dragonfish.
A decade ago, Washington came across old reports noting a strange thing about the eyes of these bioluminescent deep-sea creatures.
The cells in our eyes detect dim light with a light-sensitive protein called rhodopsin, and rhodopsin is most sensitive to green light. In the deep-sea dragonfish, though, their rhodopsins were responding to red light.
There was a second odd observation: their eyes contained a chlorophyll derivative that also absorbed red light, suggesting that perhaps this chlorophyll derivative was attaching to the rhodopsin to make it sensitive to red.
In 2006, Washington published a paper attempting to recreate this biochemistry in mice. He injected a chlorophyll derivative called chlorin E6, which is used to treat cancer, into a handful of mice.
The mice ended up being more sensitive to red light and red light alone, based on electrical recordings from their retinas. He also dissected their eyeballs to make sure the chlorin was actually in retinal cells.
His paper is published, but was only by read a handful of other researchers. However, Licina and Tibbetts know exactly what their next step is: an electroretinogram, or ERG.
It’s a technique commonly performed by eye doctors that involves hooking up electrodes to the cornea and skin around the eye to measure the activation of light-sensitive cells in the retina.
The National Institutes of Health is not in the business of enhancing night vision; it is in the business of finding cures for things like blindness, but this innovation is a fascinating advancement in optic technology.