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Bioluminescence and You

On warm nights in the calm, dark inlets of Puget Sound, the saltwater lapping up to the shore will sparkle with a pale green light if you run your hand through it. (You can also use a stick, or generally disturb the water in any way.) This is one of my favorite sights in the world. When I was growing up, we were always told that the sparkles were due to "phosphorus." Turns out they aren't, technically. It's bioluminescence, most likely from a type of plankton called dinoflagellates. There are compounds made from the element phosphorus that do glow in the dark and are used for glow-sticks and other such items (which I am also fond of), but phosphorescence and bioluminescence are not the same thing. In fact, bioluminescence, to judge from my web readings lately, is much cooler than phosphorescence.

On land you don't see glowing life forms a whole lot. In the sea, they're extremely common; and the deeper you go, the more the glow. Take the interesting case of the cookiecutter shark, who (to quote Wikipedia's page on the subject) "uses bioluminescence for camouflage, but a small patch on its underbelly remains dark and appears as a small fish to large predatory fish like tuna and mackerel. When these fish try to consume the 'small fish', they are bitten by the shark." Clever!

Several jellies ("jellyfish") glow too, as do a number of squids, marine worms, and fish. The Bioluminescence page at UC Santa Barbara has some gorgeous photos. Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution's Bioluminescence page has an extensive and quite interesting Q&A on the topic, which includes the intriguing finding that "Bioluminescence has apparently evolved many (possibly as many as 30) different times in evolutionary history" - that is, separately and unconnected from each other - suggesting it is a very useful feature indeed.

Fireflies, which I'd love to see but still haven't, are probably the most famous example of bioluminescence, as you don't have to go into the deep sea to find them (but you may have to go into the deep South). They luminesce as a communication device, to find and attract mates. And in a page right out of Alice in Wonderland, a fungus that grows in forests sometimes makes decaying trees glow faintly at night. That phenomenon is called "foxfire," or occasionally "will o' the wisp" (though I think that term can be attributed to marsh gas flames too). I clearly need to spend more time in forests at night, as I've never seen foxfire either, and it sounds awesome. (Linguistic note: some sources claim that the word "foxfire" comes from "'faux' [Fr.: 'false'] fire", and has nothing to do with foxes. I'll buy it for now.)

But the coolness doesn't stop there. Chemicals of bioluminescence have already been isolated and used as tracers for certain medical and biotechnological studies; and (according to Wikipedia) engineered bioluminescence is being considered for ideas like:
- Christmas trees that glow by themselves
- roadside trees that do likewise (saving electricity costs)
- crops that luminesce when they need water
- novelty pets that bioluminesce, such as rabbits or mice

Why stop there? Think how much some people would pay to have bioluminescent hair or tattoos. There's a fortune to be made here; and, I suspect, a sci-fi novel somewhere in the makings too.



( 23 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 23rd, 2005 08:20 pm (UTC)
It's easy to do, too, and with the discovery of green fluorescent protein (and its rainbow of mutants) environmentally inoffensive.
Sep. 23rd, 2005 08:38 pm (UTC)
Sweet. So how safe, and how easy, would it be to actually create a bioluminescent rabbit? Or, better yet, human? ("Cold fire is the new black.")
Sep. 23rd, 2005 09:29 pm (UTC)
I have to backpedal here - I was thinking of fluorescence, not bioluminescence. Fluorescence was the original plan for novelty pets (especially fish that live under blacklight).

Fluorescence is passive - the animal has a protein that emits light of a certain color when exposed to enough light of another color. Bioluminescence requires a protein acting on a substrate, so both must be present. Getting the enzyme there is easy (same technology as GFP) - the substrate is problematic. It wouldn't be easy to make a cell that made its own enzyme and fuel.

For a mammal, you might be able to get away with adding it to its diet (in research, it looks as if the substrate is usually injected). No idea what the long term safety issues with that would be; short term you're probably ok. Depending on what you want to glow, delivery might be an issue, even if you've convinced the cells to produce the enzyme.
Sep. 23rd, 2005 11:14 pm (UTC)
Hmm...so possibly you could do something to hair, as an external application, but it would have to be much harder with, say, skin. Wonder what they had in mind for bioluminescing mice or rabbits.
Sep. 23rd, 2005 11:30 pm (UTC)
If the follicle cell were pumping out a ton of luciferase and you used a luciferin (substrate)-containing shampoo, that might work. Problem is, the luminescence might then be more associated with the cells in the scalp than the hair itself - I'm not sure than the luciferase activity would survive the months it takes for the hair to grow away from the cell (its source of enzyme).

Skin might be easier, since we're pretty good at delivering small chemicals through the skin. Slap on a luciferin patch an hour before the rave and watch your flesh tattoo come alive.
Sep. 29th, 2005 05:55 pm (UTC)
Sep. 30th, 2005 04:12 am (UTC)
Huh! Cool. Coming soon to a salon near you: flip your skin color to match your outfit.
Oct. 21st, 2006 01:06 am (UTC)
This rung a bell so I looked up this post: http://www.boingboing.net/2006/10/20/chemoluminescent_hai.html
Oct. 24th, 2006 11:59 pm (UTC)
Sweet! I want some for Halloween. Hope the chemical isn't radium...

You have a good memory for posts, btw. :)
Oct. 25th, 2006 02:15 am (UTC)
My job doesn't let me forget the glowy protein problem!
Sep. 23rd, 2005 09:09 pm (UTC)
I want my entire body to be bioluminescent.

That would be cool.
Sep. 23rd, 2005 11:15 pm (UTC)
Especially if you could turn it on and off at will. And change color.
Sep. 24th, 2005 02:08 am (UTC)
Even if it were blue-green and always on, it would still be cool.
Sep. 23rd, 2005 09:21 pm (UTC)
I would just like to say that the title of this post made me grin.

Also that I adore everything that glows, natural or otherwise. And jellyfish are really cool.

That is all.
Sep. 23rd, 2005 11:18 pm (UTC)
Aye, glowing things rock. I always gravitate toward night shots in the postcard photography. And also like Christmas lights, stars, meteors, glow-in-the-dark toys, and the blue glow of a nuclear reactor core.

Monterey Bay Aquarium had a very cool jelly exhibit the one time I was there, in '02. Lots of dark rooms with illuminated jellies floating around behind the glass walls. Ever so relaxing.
Sep. 24th, 2005 01:06 am (UTC)
Yeah, we saw the same exhibit when we went to Monterey for our anniversary in '03. Awesome. I bought a book of the "symmetry of nature" illustrations that were hanging on one of the walls.
Sep. 23rd, 2005 09:39 pm (UTC)
"(You can also use a stick, or generally disturb the water in any way.)"

One of my favorite camp memories is the image of the sillouettes of all the boys in the sailing group I was teaching standing along the end of the ocean, peeing and freaking out about the phosphorus.
Sep. 23rd, 2005 11:19 pm (UTC)
Hehe! You should have told them that's a sign of an STD.

Re. boats, though - it's also very pretty to take out a rowboat, and watch the sparkles turned up by the oars.
Sep. 23rd, 2005 11:24 pm (UTC)
Yeah, we used to do that too!
Sep. 23rd, 2005 10:08 pm (UTC)
We surfaced one night near Java to ventilate a certain area of our submarine after we had been submerged for over a month in the Indian Ocean. I was the Officer of the Deck, so I was first on the bridge; I opened the bridge hatch and grabbed the handrail and pulled myself up to the bridge area. The handrail felt fuzzy, so I looked at my hand to see what was on it (the ship was under blackout conditions)and it was bio-luminescing! (first reaction...my hand is on fire!). The entire interior of the bridge was covered with a greenish-black growth that lit up on contact. Quite a light show!

Sep. 23rd, 2005 11:21 pm (UTC)
Cool! Some of those pages indicated the Indian Ocean is an especially bioluminescent place. They get a "milky sea" phenomenon where basically the whole body of water glows. Sounds like quite the sight.
Sep. 24th, 2005 01:47 am (UTC)
I wouldn't want tattoos; I'd want the ability to bioluminesce at will.

Just think...you're in a dimly lit bar, a creepy guy makes a pass at you, and your forehead lights up and spells, "Get lost, jerk."
Sep. 26th, 2005 11:15 pm (UTC)
Heheh! That would be great. Or you could subtly flash your phone number at a nicer guy...
( 23 comments — Leave a comment )