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The beautiful, deadly shrimp that can see cancer

It’s faster than a cheetah, more vicious than a piranha, it can bash through the shell of a crab in one blow … and it might just save your life one day.

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By Sandeep Dosanjh (Contributor) – Email

Print Edition: October 8, 2014

Since bringing a mantis shrimp to the operating table is inhumane, studying them must suffice. (Illustration: Anthony Biondi)

It’s faster than a cheetah, more vicious than a piranha, it can bash through the shell of a crab in one blow … and it might just save your life one day.

The mantis shrimp is one interesting animal — both an underwater nightmare and a useful aid in perfecting the greatest cancer detection technology the world has ever seen. This shallow water-dwelling shrimp grows only to about 15 to 30 cm long, but it packs one potent punch. In fact, it’s nearly impossible to keep these animals in aquariums because they can smash through glass. They’re also aggressive and territorial, often annihilating their tank mates.

This nasty shrimp loves to eat crab, sea snails, hermit crabs, even octopus. To strike, its dual raptorial appendages, located on the front of its body, gradually pull back and latch behind muscles that keep it in place. When it’s ready to attack, the muscles release, delivering a force comparable to that of a .22 calibre rifle. The blow occurs so quickly that the water around it boils. This is called supercavitation.

What other species do you know of that kills and cooks its meal in less than three-thousandths of a second? Even when the mantis shrimp misses its prey, the surrounding boiling bubbles collapse, producing an underwater shockwave that sweeps across the water and obliterates any remaining victims.

With 500 million years of evolving under its maxillipeds (a fancy word for jaws), the mantis shrimp is believed to have the most advanced eyes in the animal kingdom.

Humans only have three colour-receptive cones. The mantis shrimp has a total of 16, and sees light waves we can’t, such as ultraviolet and infrared. Scientists are captivated by this special vision.

“According to research from the University of Queensland in Australia, the compound eyes of the mantis shrimp can detect cancerous tissue. How? They spot polarized light, which is reflected differently in cancerous tissue compared to healthy tissue,” states TheBlaze.

Taking what they’ve learned about the mantis shrimp’s ability to see polarized light, scientists are developing a camera that could detect cancer within humans.

“Humans can’t see this, but a mantis shrimp could walk up to it and hit it,” said Justin Marshall, a professor from Queensland’s Brain Institute.

This camera will one day, hopefully, identify cancerous tissue in a patient before even undergoing a surgery or biopsy.

Marshall imagines a world where this technology could become so refined that people could access it simply through their smartphones. The methods currently available for cancer detection are not so user-friendly, as they expose the body to radiation in the form of x-rays, CAT scans, and PET scans. Cancer is also tested by examining blood samples, inserting cameras into various parts of the body, screening, and biopsies. Theoretically, you could skip all of that, whip out your phone, and check your body yourself with total autonomy — though you might need another person to check hard-to-reach areas.

Here, we see how the complex evolution of Mother Nature and human technology can coalesce and improve treatments. This knowledge could save lives that are lost to cancer each year. Once the cancer detection app is released, we should all remember to thank the terrifying — but beautiful — mantis shrimp.

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