#28: Bioluminescence

Humans are inherently amazed by bioluminescence, or the production of light by living organisms. It can come from a multitude of sources: land or sea; animal, plant, fungi, or bacteria. Think of any film scene featuring bioluminescence, real or science fiction, and inevitably all of the characters stop what they are doing and take in the beauty, overwhelmed with a sense of awe.

Bioluminescent jellyfish in Life of Pi
I am groot

When I think of bioluminescence, I think about the first time I saw fireflies or learned about the deep sea angler fish. From a scientific perspective, the process is perhaps even more magical. These organisms engage in complex chemistry to produce photons in a variety of ways. One Parisian start-up company is looking to use this chemistry in bioluminescent bacteria to replace some forms of lighting, but one of the more famous examples is the discovery of Green Fluorescent Protein, or GFP, from the Aequorea victoria in the Puget Sound of Washington State. This protein has subsequently revolutionized biological research and its discovery and development were rewarded with the 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Technical Jargon Bubble with Embarrassing Anecdote:
Technically, the A. victoria jellyfish produces light with the calcium-activated photoprotein, aequorin, which weirdly enough has also been marketed as a memory enhancing supplement, although that claim has been challenged by the FTC. GFP, as its name suggests, does not perform luminescence, but rather fluorescence, in which the protein does not produce light itself but absorbs light, which it then re-releases at a longer wavelength. [Think about how at a sweet rave party, or laser tag, the black light (very short wavelength) that we can’t see is absorbed by fluorescent paints or bleaching agents in your white clothes. These things then seem to ‘glow’ because they release longer wavelength light that we can see.] Thus GFP produces green light by absorbing blue light, or in a resonance energy transfer process called BRET, and does not produce light by itself. Not knowing this when first conducting experiments with GFP-labeled cells, I just put them on a normal, upright microscope in a dark room and tried to see if anything was glowing. Needless to say, it was not.

Of all of the bioluminescent organisms, one phyllum (remember ‘King Philip Came Over For Good Spaghetti [or Good Sex if you were giggling in the back of the class]’ from high school biology?) that I have been fascinated by are dinoflagellates. These tiny plankton live in the ocean and produce light at night in response to agitation with some magical results:

I originally became interested in these ‘dinos’ after receiving some as a Christmas gift from my sister. They came in a clear plastic container shaped like a tiny dinosaur from a sadly now defunct company. At night, if you inverted the dino, they would produce thousands of little spots of light in response to the agitation.

I briefly tried incorporating them as a side project, growing them up with light and autoclaved sea water from the Mediterranean. At one point, I had enough that I made little aliquots and gave them to colleagues to give to their kids. But, partially because I had no idea what I was doing, eventually they died and my plastic dino has been dormant ever since.

However, I was excited to find out that they can commonly be seen on the Pacific beaches of Costa Rica. There are a few places that do kayak tours, but they aren’t super cheap and are at least a three hour drive away. While that is still on the table, I would like to see if I can just see them myself nearby. I’ve heard reports of them at a nearby beach several years ago, but I imagine that a lot of the luck comes from the tides. I’ll keep trying though, because if I could swim in the ocean illuminated by dinos, I’m sure I would stop and be overwhelmed by a sense of awe like in so many films I’ve seen.

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