One Flash of Light, One Vision: Carrots, Colour and Chemistry

“White” light is made up of all the colours of the rainbow.

Sometimes you have one of those weeks when the universe seems to be determined to yell at you about a certain thing. That’s happened to me this week, and the shouting has been all about light and vision (earworm, anyone?).

I started the week writing about conjugated molecules and UV spectrometry for one project, was asked a couple of days ago if I’d support a piece of work on indicators for the RSC Twitter Poster Conference that’s happening from 2-3rd March, and then practically fell over a tweet by Dr Adam Rutherford about bacteria that photosynthesise from infrared light in a hydrothermal vent*.

Oh well, who am I to fight the universe?

Light is awesome. The fact that we can detect it is even awesome-er. The fact that we’ve evolved brains clever enough built all sorts of machines to measure other kinds of light that our puny human eyes cannot detect is, frankly, astonishing.

The electromagnetic spectrum covers all the different kinds of light. (Image source)

Let’s start with some basics. You probably met the electromagnetic (EM) spectrum at some point in school. Possibly a particularly enthusiastic physics teacher encouraged you to come up with some sort of mnemonic to help you remember it. Personally I like Rich Men In Vegas Use eXpensive Gadgets, but maybe that’s just me.

The relevant thing here is that the EM spectrum covers all the different wavelengths of light. Visible light, the stuff that’s, well, visible (to our eyes), runs from about 400 to 700 nanometres.

A colour wheel: when light is absorbed, we see the colour opposite the absorbed wavelengths. (Image source)

Now, we need another bit of basic physics (and biology): we see light when it enters our eyes and strikes our retinas. We see colours when only certain wavelengths of light make it into our eyes.

So-called “white” light is made up of all the colours of the rainbow. Take one or more of those colours away, and we see what’s left.

For example, if something looks red, it means that red light made it to our eyes, which in turn means that, somewhere along the way, blue and green were filtered out.

(Before I go any further, there are actually several causes of colour, but I’m about to focus on one in particular. If you really want to know more, there’s this book, although it is a tad expensive…)

Back to chemistry. Certain substances absorb coloured light. We know them as pigments. Carrots are orange, for example, largely because they contain a pigment called beta-carotene (or β-carotene). This stuff appears, to our eyes, as red-orange, and the reason for that is that it absorbs green-blue light, the wavelengths around 400-500 nm.

β-Carotene is a long molecule with lots of C=C double bonds. (Image source.)

Why does it absorb light at all? Well, β-carotene is a really long molecule, with lots of C=C double bonds. These bonds form what’s called a conjugated system. Without getting into the complexities of molecular orbital theory, that means the double bonds alternate along the chain, and they basically overlap and… smoosh into one long thing. (Look, as the saying goes, “all models are wrong, but some are useful,” – it’ll do for now.)

When molecules with conjugated systems are exposed to electromagnetic light, they absorb it. Specifically, they absorb in the ultraviolet region – the wavelengths between about 200 and 400 nanometres. Here’s the thing, though, those wavelengths are right next to the violet end of the visible spectrum – that’s why it’s called ultraviolet after all.

Molecules with really long conjugated systems start to absorb in the coloured light region, as well. And because they’re absorbing violet and blue, possibly a smidge of green, they look… yup! Orangey, drifting into red.

So now you know why carrots are orange. Most brightly coloured fruit, of course, is that way to attract animals and birds to eat it, and thus spread its seeds. As fruit ripens, it usually changes colour, making it stand out better against green foliage and easier to find. This is the link with indicators that I mentioned at the start: many fruits contain anthocyanin pigments, and these often have purple-red colours in neutral-acidic environments, and yellow-green at the more alkaline end. In other words, the colour change is quite literally an indicator of ripeness.

But the bit of the carrot that we usually eat is underground, right? Not particularly easy to spot, and they don’t contain seeds anyway. Why are carrots bright orange?

Modern carrots are mostly orange, but purple and yellow varieties also exist.

Well, they weren’t. The edible roots of wild plants almost certainly started out as white or cream-coloured, as you might expect for something growing underground, but the carrots which were first domesticated and farmed by humans in around 900 CE were, most probably, purple and yellow.

As carrot cultivation became popular, orange roots began to appear in Spain and Germany in the 15th/16th centuries. Very orange carrots, with high levels of β-carotene, appeared from the 16th/17th centuries and were probably first cultivated in the Netherlands. Some have theorised that they were particularly selected for to honour William of Orange, but the evidence for this seems to be a bit slight. Either way, most modern European carrots do descend from a variety that was originally grown in the Dutch town of Hoorn.

In other words, brightly-coloured carrots are a mutation which human plant breeders selected for, probably largely for appearances.

But wait! There was an advantage for humans, too – even if we didn’t realise it straight away. β-carotene (which, by the way, has the E number E160a – many natural substances have E numbers, they’re nothing to be frightened of) is broken up in our intestines to form vitamin A.

Vitamin A is essential for good eye health.

Vitamin A, like most vitamins, is actually a group of compounds, but the important thing is that it’s essential for growth, a healthy immune system and – this is the really clever bit – good vision.

We knew that. Carrots help you see in the dark, right?

Hah. Well. The idea that carrot consumption actually improves eyesight seems to be the result of a World War II propaganda campaign. During the Blitz, the Royal Air Force had (at that time) new, secret radar technology. They didn’t want anyone to know that, of course, so they spread the rumour that British pilots could see exceptionally well in the dark because they ate a lot of carrots, when the truth was that those pilots were actually using radar.

But! It’s not all a lie – there is some truth to it! Our retinas, at the back of our eyes, have two types of light-sensitive cells. Cone cells help us distinguish colours, while rod cells help us detect light in general.

In those rod cells, a molecule called 11-cis-retinal is converted into another molecule called rhodopsin. This is really light-sensitive. When it’s exposed to light it photobleaches (stops being able to fluoresce), but then regenerates. This process takes about thirty minutes, and is a large part of the reason it takes a while for your eyes to “get used to the dark.”

Guess where 11-cis-retinal comes from? Yep! From vitamin A. Which is why one of the symptoms of vitamin A deficiency is night blindness. So although eating loads of carrots won’t give you super-powered night vision, it does help to maintain vision in low light.

Our brain interprets electrical signals as vision.

How do these molecules actually help us to see? Well, when rhodopsin is exposed to light, the molecule changes, which ultimately results in an electrical signal being transmitted along the optic nerve to the brain, which interprets it as vision!

In summary, not only is colour all about molecules, but our whole visual system depends on some clever chemistry. I told you chemistry was cool!

Just gimme fried chicken 😉


*Ah. I sort of ran out of space for the weird hydrothermal bacteria thing. At least one of the relevant molecules seems to be another carotenoid, probably chlorobactene. The really freaking amazing thing is that there seems to be an absorption at 775 nm, which is beyond red visible light and into the infrared region of the EM spectrum. Maybe more on this another day…


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