TEDxSydney: a chat with Dr Andrew Parker

TEDxSydney: a chat with Dr Andrew Parker

Wednesday March 27, 2013 Written by toby

Dr Andrew Parker once solved a prehistoric mystery in one fell swoop – and it all had to do with an eyeball. Now, according to the author and biologist, it's time industry caught up.

We spoke to him ahead of his TedxSydney talk to get a glimpse inside his restless, far-reaching mind.


Life changed forever over 500 million years ago and, before you arrived with your Light Switch Theory, no one quite knew why. What actually happened?

We had something called the Cambrian Explosion or The Big Bang of Evolution. We had these 37 groups of animals with different internal structures but the same soft part on the outside. Then what happened is, 521 million years ago, an animal evolved an eye. And this was a trilobite. When it evolved an eye, it could see all the different animals around it and it could see that they were actually soft-bodied, fairly slow-moving sluggish things – effectively, they were chunks of protein.

That put selection pressures on this animal with the eye to develop hard parts, to move quickly and to rip the animals apart – to become a predator. And that, in turn, caused selection pressures to act on all the other animals, to evolve defences against this new predator with vision.

At that moment of time, all these animals in all the different phyla independently and simultaneously evolved their hard parts. So we went from a stage where life was slow-moving and sluggish to becoming fast-moving and having all the types of life styles that we see today. And that happened really quickly in terms of the geological scale.

What drew you to the field? Apparently it all started with a shrimp.

I was working in Australia on a group of animals call seed-shrimps, or ostracods: tiny crustaceans enclosed within a bivalve shell. As I was moving some around on a petri dish under a microscope, I moved one into an unusual orientation and it caused the antennae to light up. It emerged that these antennae had diffraction gratings on them: the same things we get in holograms, credit cards. And it caused the light to reflect really strongly as a bright green colour.

That actually led me into all sorts of areas. We didn't know about these diffraction gratings in nature before, and I decided to investigate elsewhere, now that I knew what I was looking for. You can see the light effect, but the actual structures themselves are microscopic – you can only find them on electron microscopes. But I started to look at other things in electron microscopes and lots of other marine and terrestrial animals have these.

When I started to work with physicists, I realised that some of the animals' diffraction gratings weren't known to industry, but they have actual applications. Colour has been acted on by selection pressures and, over millions of years, it was evolving to become very efficient. Today we have a whole range of animals with very efficient colours that are worthwhile copying for industry because they actually evolved from millions of years of trail and error - something we don't have the luxury of.

Tell us about what you'll be discussing at TedxSydney.

The fact that nature has all these fantastic inventions that we're actually not making use of. In a way, it's all come about just by following this trail from finding this first colour in nature accidentally. Twenty years later, it's led me to some important commercial innovations.

Over the years, you, a biologist, have called on fields as diverse as physics, geology, engineering, chemistry and even art; now, you're applying your findings to commerce. How important is this cross-disciplinary approach to our understanding of the world?

Very. We tend to, in biology for example, categorise things for a long time, and we go into certain trends – certain subjects become trendy – and everyone focuses on that. We've been focusing on DNA for a long time but we are realising that physical forces play a big role as well in shaping the way animal body forms are. It's by bringing in the different sciences that you get the full understanding, rather than being focused on a particular trend.

It's when you start to understand all the subjects, put all the subjects together, that the Light Switch Theory begins to really work. So you need a full understanding of vision, and how important vision is today, not just palaeontology of an event that happened 520 million years ago.

It's a great subject to think of as well in terms of the psychological effect, if you just imagine what life would be like without light and then suddenly with light. You can just imagine how life would work so differently.

And now, you could say, you're showing business the light.

That's right.

Dr Andrew Parker will be speaking at TEDxSydney on May 4 at the Sydney Opera House. Applications to attend close on March 30. Apply here.

Image: Boykov / Shutterstock