Scientists believe they have found a new state of matter in what could be considered one of the strangest of places: a chicken’s eye.

That state of matter called disordered hyperuniformity was first described in 2003 and has been observed in physical systems, but this discovery is the first time it has been found in a living organism.

Matter in a state of disordered hyperuniformity behaves both like a crystal and like water, according to Princeton University, whose team of researchers identified this configuration in the chicken’s eye along with scientists at the Washington University in St. Louis.

Photo credit: Shutterstock

Photo credit: Shutterstock

The scientists identified the disordered hyperuniform pattern while analyzing the cone photoreceptor system in chickens, which consists of five types of cells. Using a computer model to further analyze the pattern of the cells, researchers found the chicken’s cones were disordered in that they were “irregularly placed,” as Princeton put it, but their distribution was “uniform.”

“Because the cones are of different sizes it’s not easy for the system to go into a crystal or ordered state,” Princeton chemistry professor Salvatore Torquato told the university. “The system is frustrated from finding what might be the optimal solution, which would be the typical ordered arrangement. While the pattern must be disordered, it must also be as uniform as possible. Thus, disordered hyperuniformity is an excellent solution.”

This illustration shows that while the cones might appear disordered, they have an "exclusion region" around each cone into which no other cones can enter. (Image source: Salvatore Torquato, Princeton University via Physical Review E)

This illustration shows that while the cones might appear disordered, they have an “exclusion region” around each cone into which no other cones can enter. (Image source: Salvatore Torquato, Princeton University via Physical Review E)

Torquato said that physical systems found to have this state of matter are “endowed with exotic physical properties and therefore have novel capabilities,” Princeton reported.

“The more we learn about these special disordered systems, the more we find that they really should be considered a new distinguishable state of matter,” he continued.

Why would a chicken eye have this unusual state of matter? Joseph Corbo, the study’s co-author from Washington University, said it could be because the cones are packed in such a small space.

“These findings are significant because they suggest that the arrangement of photoreceptors in the bird, although not perfectly regular, are, in fact, as regular as they can be given the packing constraints in the epithelium,” Corbo told Princeton University news. ”This result indicates that evolution has driven the system to the ‘optimal’ arrangement possible, given these constraints. We still know nothing about the cellular and molecular mechanisms that underlie this beautiful and highly organized arrangement in birds. So, future research directions will include efforts to decipher how these patterns develop in the embryo.”

The study was published in the journal Physical Review E.

(H/T: Science Daily)