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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.



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!