The single injection of nanoparticles bestowed the world of night vision on mice – for up to ten weeks.
It worked well enough during the day and at night for various shapes to be distinguishable.
Seeing near infrared light directly would mean army personnel on dangerous missions would no longer need to wear cumbersome night vision goggles.
In the study the injectable particles bound to photoreceptor cells known as rods and cones.
“This is an exciting subject because the technology we made possible here could eventually enable human beings to see beyond our natural capabilities”
Professor Tian Xue
This led to the mice developing infrared vision – without compromising their normal sight.
Senior author Professor Tian Xue, of the University of Science and Technology of China, said: “In our study, we have shown both rods and cones bind these nanoparticles and were activated by the near infrared light.
“So we believe this technology will also work in human eyes, not only for generating super vision but also for therapeutic solutions in human red colour vision deficits.”
Aside from a few animals – like pythons and vampire bats – infrared vision is beyond most creatures.
Humans and other mammals are limited to seeing a range of wavelengths known as visible light, which includes those of the rainbow.
But infrared radiation, which has a longer wavelength, is all around us.
People, animals and objects emit infrared light as they give off heat, and objects can also reflect it.
Thermal and infrared cameras are used in a wide range of industries – from security settings to identify intruders to construction to detect flaws in a building.
If humans could see infrared light, motorists could avoid accidentally hitting pedestrians by seeing their heat signatures in the dark.
It would also make it easier to rescue disaster survivors trapped under rubble or snow.
Prof Xue added: “This is an exciting subject because the technology we made possible here could eventually enable human beings to see beyond our natural capabilities.”
The study published in Cell tested the nanoparticles in mice which, like humans, cannot see infrared naturally.