Bioluminescence in the Sea: Why, How and Creatures That Use It

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bioluminescent jellyfish
Bioluminescence is the production and emission of light by a living organism. Bioluminescent creatures are found throughout marine habitats, from the ocean surface to the deep seafloor. There are more bioluminescent life forms in the sea, than on land. Among them are shrimp, jellyfish, sea pens, comb jellies, fish, squid, plankton, insects, worms, mollusks,tunicates, hydroids, protozoans, and dinoflagellates.

If you’ve ever seen a firefly, you have encountered a bioluminescent organism. In the ocean, bioluminescence is not as rare as you might think. In fact, most types of animals, from bacteria to sharks, include some bioluminescent members.

Abigail Tucker wrote in Smithsonian magazine: Only a tiny percentage of terrestrial life is bioluminescent — fireflies, most famously, but also some millipedes, click beetles, fungus gnats, jack-o’-lantern mushrooms and a few others. The one known luminous freshwater dweller is a lonely New Zealand limpet. Most lake and river residents don’t need to manufacture light; they exist in sunlit worlds with plenty of places to meet mates, encounter prey and hide from predators. Sea animals, on the other hand, must make their way in the obsidian void of the ocean, where sunlight decreases tenfold every 225 feet, and disappears by 3,000: It’s pitch-black even at high noon, which is why so many sea creatures express themselves with light instead of color. The trait has evolved independently at least 40 times, and perhaps more than 50, in the sea, spanning the food chain from flaring zooplankton to colossal squid with large light organs on the backside of their eyeballs. Mollusks alone have seven distinct ways of making light, and new incandescent beings are being spotted all the time.

A deep sea jellyfish discovered in 2005 is one of the few known creature that produces red light. The light, generated through fluorescence rather than bioluminescence. is used to attract prey. Fluorescent organisms are ones with proteins that absorb high energy light like blue or violet and emit lower energy red, yellow or green. One creature that can do this a five-millimeter jellyfish from the Florida Keys that achieves this with algae. Scientists searching for such creatures shine blue spotlights into the depths

Websites and Resources: Animal Diversity Web (ADW); National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); “Introduction to Physical Oceanography” by Robert Stewart , Texas A&M University, 2008 ; Fishbase ; Encyclopedia of Life ; Smithsonian Oceans Portal ; Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute ; Cousteau Society ; Monterey Bay Aquarium ; MarineBio

What Causes Bioluminescence

The light emitted by a bioluminescent organism is produced by energy released from chemical reactions occurring inside (or ejected by) the organism. There is a dazzling variety of compounds and enzymes that produce light, and in fact each luminescent species uses different substances.

Bioluminescence is caused by chemical compounds called luciferin, which interacts with oxygen, an enzyme called luciferase and a high energy molecule called adenosine triphosphate (ATP) to produce visible light but little heat. Certain cells in tissues in some organism create the light, which some argue is the most efficient energy-emission system known.

Elizabeth Kolbert wrote in The New Yorker: Luciferins are “compounds that, in the presence of certain enzymes, known as luciferases, oxidize and give off photons. The trick is useful enough that bioluminescence has evolved independently some fifty times. Eyes, too, have evolved independently about fifty times, in creatures as diverse as flies, flatworms, and frogs. But, Edith Widder a marine biologist, points out, “there is one remarkable distinction.” All animals’ eyes employ the same basic strategy to convert light to sensation, using proteins called opsins. In the case of bioluminescence, different groups of organisms produce very different luciferins, meaning that each has invented its own way to shine.[Source: Elizabeth Kolbert, The New Yorker, June 14, 2021]

Why Creatures Employ Bioluminescence

bioluminescent comb jelly

While the functions of bioluminescence are not known for all animals, typically bioluminescence is used to warn or evade predators), to lure or detect prey, and for communication between members of the same species. Elizabeth Kolbert wrote in The New Yorker: “The most obvious reason to flash a light in the dark is to find food. Some animals, like the stoplight loosejaw, a fish with photon-emitting organs under each eye, use bioluminescence to seek out prey. Others, like the humpback blackdevil, hope to attract victims with their displays; the blackdevil sports a shiny lure that dangles off its forehead like a crystal from a chandelier. [Source: Elizabeth Kolbert, The New Yorker, June 14, 2021]

“Bioluminescence also serves less straightforward functions. It can be used to entice mates and to startle enemies. The giant red mysid, a hamster-size crustacean, spews streams of blue sparkles from nozzles near its mouth; these, it’s believed, distract would-be attackers. Some animals smear their pursuers with bioluminescent slime — the marks make them targets for other predators — and some use bioluminescence as camouflage. This last strategy is known as counterillumination, and it’s used in the twilight zone, where many creatures have upward-looking eyes that scan for the silhouettes of prey. The prey can adjust their glow to blend in with the light filtering down from above.

Abigail Tucker wrote in Smithsonian magazine: Scientists believe that bioluminescence is always a means of influencing other animals — a signal fire in the deep. The message must be important enough to outweigh the risks of revealing one’s location in the blackness. “It’s the basic stuff of survival,” Widder says. “There’s incredible selective pressure on the visual environment, where you have to worry about what’s above you if you’re a predator and what’s below you if you’re prey. Often, you’re both.” [Source: Abigail Tucker, Smithsonian magazine, March 2013]

“In addition to activating their startle responses, hunted animals also use light as camouflage. Many midwater predators have permanently upward-pointed eyes, scanning overhead for prey silhouetted against the downwelling sunlight. Viewed thus, even the frailest shrimp becomes an eclipse. So prey animals dapple their bellies with light organs called photophores. Activating these bright mantles, they can blend in with the ambient light, becoming effectively invisible. Fish can snuff out their stomachs at will, or dim them if a cloud passes overhead. The Abralia squid can match the color of moonlight.

Luring food is the second bioluminescent motive. The aptly named flashlight fish sweeps the darkness with its intense cheek lights, looking for tasty neighbors. In front of its cruel jaws, the viperfish dangles a glowing lure on the end of a mutated fin ray that resembles, to hungry passersby, a resplendent piece of fish poop — a favored deep-sea snack. (Rather than kindling their own light, some of these predators enjoy symbiotic relationships with bioluminescent bacteria, which they culture inside light-bulb-like cavities that they can snuff with sliding flaps of skin or by rolling the light organs up into their heads, “exactly like the headlights of a Lamborghini,” Widder says.)

Finally, light is used to recruit mates. “We think they flash specific patterns, or have species-specific-shaped light organs,” Widder says. Female octopods sometimes set their mouths ablaze with glowing lipstick; Bermuda fireworms enliven the shallows with ravelike green orgies. Most romantic of all is the love light of the anglerfish, one of Widder’s favorite animals. The female, a fearsome gal with a toothy underbite, brandishes a lantern of glowing bacteria above her head. The male of her species, tiny and lanternless but with sharp eyes, swims toward her and smooches her side; his lips become fused to her body until she absorbs everything but his testes. (You might say that she will always carry a torch for him.) Some sea creatures’ use of light mystifies Widder. Why does the shining tube-shoulder fish shrug out light? Why does the smalltooth dragonfish have two headlights instead of one, in slightly different shades of red? How does the colossal squid use its light organ?

Bioluminescence and Ocean Waves

Some ocean waves are luminescence because single-cell life forms called dinoflagellates, which are abundant in the sea, give off chemically-produced light when they are disturbed. This light creates auras around fish that feed on them, giving them away to predators. Large ships can leave behind wakes of glowing dinoflagellates that can be seen for miles.

Dinoflagellates emit bioluminescence when the water is agitated. Scientist are not exactly sure why. According to one theory they do it to attract fish so they will feed on the copepods that feed on the dinoflagellates. According to Tucker: The winking dinoflagellate blooms in the Indian River Lagoon on Florida’s east coast can be so bright that schools of fish look etched in turquoise flame. It’s possible to identify the species swimming in the lit-up water: Local residents call this guessing game “reading the fire.”“

On ocean waves glowing neon blue on California coastline, Helena Wegner wrote in the San Luis Obispo Tribune, “The dazzling bright color can be spotted at night when waves or swimming dolphins agitate clusters of dinoflagellate — a form of algae blooms, according to the University of California, San Diego. Many people and photographers took to social media to capture the seemingly magical display at San Diego beaches, which started to glimmer at the beginning of March. Scientists from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography don’t know how long the “red tide” will appear but said it could last from a week to a month or more. During the day, the red tide is a reddish-brown color as the algal bloom concentrates near the surface of the water, the university says. The best time to catch a glimpse of the bright neon waves is two hours after sunset at a dark beach, scientists say. The bioluminescent organisms made an appearance last year, too.[Source: Helena Wegner, San Luis Obispo Tribune, March 5, 2022]

Edith Widder: the Iconic Bioluminescence Expert

Abigail Tucker wrote in Smithsonian magazine: Edith Widder studies underwater light. Bioluminescence, Widder believes, is the most common, and most eloquent, language on earth, and it’s informing fields from biomedicine to modern warfare to deep-sea exploration. Most recently, on a historic voyage off the coast of Japan, she used her bioluminescent bag of tricks to summon the most legendary sea creature of all: the giant squid. [Source: Abigail Tucker, Smithsonian magazine, March 2013]

bioluminescent jellyfish
“Many discoveries happen just by catching something out of the corner of your eye,” she says. She tells us about William Beebe, the early 20th-century naturalist and explorer and a personal hero of hers, who descended in a steel bathysphere and was the first to watch deep-sea animals in the wild, including what must have been bioluminescent creatures that “exploded” in “an outpouring of fluid flame.” Because he claimed to see so many animals in a short time, scientists later questioned his findings. “I believe he saw what he said he saw,” Widder says. And she has seen much more.

Describing her at fundraising party, Tucker writes: “Barely five feet tall but owning the crowd, Widder is a true luminary tonight. She wears a blue glitter-encrusted vest and a headdress of glow sticks. Bright fishing lures adorn her cropped hair. In this ridiculous get-up, she somehow appears perfectly coiffed. She has, 30 years into her deep-sea career, explored waters off the coasts of Africa, Hawaii and England, from the West Alboran Sea to the Sea of Cortez to the South Atlantic Bight. She has consulted Fidel Castro about the best way to prepare lobster (not with wine, in his opinion). She has set sail with Leonardo DiCaprio and Daryl Hannah for a save-the-ocean celebrity event. But for much of her career, she was the unusual one aboard: Many of the research vessels that she frequented in the early days had only ever carried men. Old salts were amused to see that she could tie a bowline knot. And some scientists didn’t realize for years that E. A. Widder, who published with devastating frequency and to great acclaim, was a young woman.

Widder;s mother was a gifted mathematician, but her career always came second to that of her husband, who headed Harvard University’s math department. When she was 11, her father took a yearlong sabbatical and the family traveled the world. In Paris, Widder vowed to become an artist; in Egypt, an archaeologist. On the Fijian reefs, where she ogled giant clams and cornered a lionfish (“I didn’t realize it was poisonous”), the ocean captured her heart. (On the same trip, in poverty-stricken Bangladesh, she decided never to have children; she and her husband, David, have kept that promise.)

She studied biology at Tufts and received a PhD in neurobiology from the University of California at Santa Barbara. As a graduate student, she worked on the membrane biophysics of dinoflagellates, which piqued her interest in bioluminescence, and when her adviser received a grant for a spectrophotometer, a temperamental machine used to measure light, she “just started messing with it to figure it out” and “became the lab expert.” Another scientist requisitioned the new gadget for a 1982 research cruise off the coast of California; Widder went as part of the package.

She had unwittingly stowed away on a landmark mission. Until that time, marine biologists (William Beebe and a few others excepted) had relied on net samples to glimpse deep-sea life, a rather misleading method: Light-bearers, especially, are so delicate they may disintegrate in standard nets, often exhausting their bioluminescence before they reach the surface. But this trip would deploy the WASP, a motorized “atmospheric dive suit” that offshore oil companies had developed to repair underwater rigs. Biologists wanted to use it to observe sea animals instead.

Bioluminescent Fireworks in the Deep Ocean

Milky Sea off Somalia

Elizabeth Kolbert wrote in The New Yorker: “Only the top layers of the oceans are illuminated. The “sunlight zone” extends down about seven hundred feet, the “twilight zone” down another twenty-six hundred feet. Below that — in the “midnight zone,” the “abyssal zone,” and the “hadal zone” — there’s only blackness, and the light created by life itself. In this vast darkness, so many species have mastered the art of bioluminescence that Widder estimates they constitute a “majority of the creatures on the planet.” The first time she descended into the deep in an armored diving suit called a WASP, she was overwhelmed by the display. “This was a light extravaganza unlike anything I could have imagined,” she writes. “Afterwards, when asked to describe what I had seen, I blurted, ‘It’s like the Fourth of July down there!’ ” [Source: Elizabeth Kolbert, The New Yorker, June 14, 2021]

Abigail Tucker wrote in Smithsonian magazine: Widder’s first dive, in the Santa Barbara Channel in 1984, was at sunset. As she sank, the view changed from cornflower blue to cobalt to black. Even with crushing tons of water overhead, she did not experience the clammy panic that makes some pilots’ first dive their last. Passing ethereal jellyfish and shrimp with ultralong antennae that they appeared to ride like skis, she drifted down 880 feet, where sunshine was just a smoggy haze overhead. Then, “I turned out the lights.” [Source: Abigail Tucker, Smithsonian magazine, March 2013]

She was hoping for a flash here, a flash there. But what she saw in the darkness rivaled Van Gogh’s Starry Night — plumes and blossoms and flourishes of brilliance. “There were explosions of light all around, and sparks and swirls and great chains of what looked like Japanese lanterns,” she remembers. Light popped, smoked and splintered: “I was enveloped. Everything was glowing. I couldn’t distinguish one light from another. It was just a variety of things making light, different shapes, different kinetics, mostly blue, and just so much of it. That’s what astonished me.” Why was there so much light? Who was making it? What were they saying? Why wasn’t anybody studying this stuff? “It seemed like an insane use of energy, and evolution is not insane,” she says. “It’s parsimonious.”

On a subsequent expedition to Monterey Canyon she would pilot a dozen five-hour dives, and with each descent she grew more spellbound. Sometimes, the mystery animals outside were so bright that Widder swore the diving suit was releasing arcs of electricity into the surrounding water. Once, “the whole suit lit up.” What she now believes was a 20-foot siphonophore — a kind of jellyfish colony — was passing overheard, light cascading from one end to the other. “I could read every single dial and gauge inside the suit by its light,” Widder remembers. “It was breathtaking.” It went on glowing for 45 seconds. She’d lashed a blue light to the front of the WASP, hoping to stimulate an animal response. Underwater, the rod blinked frenetically, but the animals all ignored her. “I’m sitting in the dark with this bright blue glowing thing,” Widder says. “I just couldn’t believe nothing was paying attention to it.”

Making Sense of the Deep Sea Fireworks

Abigail Tucker wrote in Smithsonian magazine: Decoding the bioluminescent lexicon would become her life’s work. Once she found a way to measure undersea light, she started trying to distinguish more precisely among the myriad lightmakers. On her increasingly frequent deep-water excursions, Widder had begun to watch for themes in the strobelike spectacles. Different species, it seemed, had distinct light signatures. Some creatures flashed; others pulsated. Siphonophores looked like long whips of light; comb jellies resembled exploding suns. “To most people it looks like random flashing and chaos,” says Bruce Robison, of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute and one of Widder’s early mentors. “But Edie saw patterns. Edie saw that there is a sense to the kind of signals that the animals are using, and the communications that take place down there. That was a breakthrough.” . [Source: Abigail Tucker, Smithsonian magazine, March 2013]

What if she could identify animals just by the shape and duration of their glow circles? She could then conduct a bioluminescent census. Widder developed a database of common light codes that she’d learned to recognize. Then she mounted a three-foot-wide mesh screen on the front of a slow-moving submarine. When animals struck the mesh, they blasted their bioluminescence. A video camera recorded the flares, and a computer image-analysis program teased out the animals’ identity and location. Widder was gathering the sort of basic information that land-based biologists take for granted, such as whether, even in the ocean, certain species are territorial. The camera was also a window into the nightly swarming of deep-sea creatures toward the nutrient-rich surface — the “vertical migration” that is considered the largest animal migration pattern on the planet. “The whole water column reorganizes itself at dusk and dawn, and that’s when a lot of predation happens,” she says. “Do certain animals hang back and vertically migrate at different times of day? How do you sort that out?”

As useful as these inventions proved, some of Widder’s most stunning discoveries came to light just because she was hanging out in the right place at the right time. Often that was about 2,500 feet underwater. On a submersible in the Gulf of Maine, Widder trapped a foot-long red octopus and brought it to the surface. It was a well-known species, but Widder and a graduate student were the first to examine it in the dark. (“People just don’t look,” she sighs.) Flipping off the lights in their lab, they were astonished to see that where suckers are found on other octopuses, rows of gleaming light organs instead studded the arms. Perhaps run-of-the-mill suckers were not useful to an open-ocean resident with few surfaces to cling to, and carnival-esque foot lights, likely used as a “come hither” for the animal’s next meal, were a better bet. “It was evolution caught in the act,” Widder says.

Technology Used to Study Deep Sea Bioluminescence

Abigail Tucker wrote in Smithsonian magazine: Decoding the bioluminescent lexicon would become her life’s work. Widder invented a tool to measure light levels. Called a HIDEX, it sucks large amounts of seawater, and any bioluminescent animals within, into a light-tight chamber and reads their glow. “It tells you about the distribution of organisms in the water column,” she says. [Source: Abigail Tucker, Smithsonian magazine, March 2013]

Even though the twinkling lingo of light is more complicated and far subtler than she initially imagined, Widder never stopped wanting to speak it. In the mid-1990s, she envisioned a camera system that would operate on far-red light, which humans can see but fish cannot. Anchored to the seafloor and inconspicuous, the camera would allow her to record bioluminescence as it naturally occurs. Widder — ever the gearhead — sketched out the camera design herself. She named it the Eye-in-the-Sea. She lured her luminous subjects to the camera with a circle of 16 blue LED lights programmed to flash in a suite of patterns. This so-called e-Jelly is modeled on the panic response of the atolla jellyfish, whose “burglar alarm” display can be seen from 300 feet away underwater. The alarm is a kind of kaleidoscopic scream that the assaulted jellyfish uses to hail an even bigger animal to come and eat its predator.

carbon cycle and bioluminescence

In her lab, Widder leads me into a light-tight closet at the back of her lab, then rummages in the fridge for a flask of seawater. It looks clear and still and not too promising. Then she turns off the light and gives the water a little swirl. A trillion sapphires ignite. This glittering concoction, the color of mouthwash, is full of dinoflag-ellates, the same planktonic animals that enchant Puerto Rico’s bioluminescent bays and bathe speeding dolphins in otherworldly blue light. The chemistry behind the glow, shared by many bioluminescent creatures, involves an enzyme called luciferase, which adds oxygen to a compound called luciferin, shedding a photon of visible light — a bit like what happens when you snap a glow stick. Stimulated by Widder’s swirl, the dinoflagelletes sparkle to discourage whatever has nudged them — be it a predatory copepod or a kayak paddle — in the hopes that it will forfeit its meal. Larger animals exhibit the same startle response: Lit up along their light grooves, gulper eels look like cartoon electrocutions. Widder eventually realized that the Vegas-like displays she saw from the WASP were mostly examples of startle responses stimulated by contact with her diving suit.

Amazing Bioluminescent Creatures

Abigail Tucker wrote in Smithsonian magazine: From bacteria to sea cucumbers to shrimp and fish, and even a few species of sharks, more than 50 percent of deep-ocean animals use light to holler and flirt and fight. They carry glowing torches atop their heads. They vomit brightness. They smear light on their enemies. The humpback anglerfish has a “fishing pole” and bioluminescent lure.

Today we are hoping to see ostracods, seed-size bioluminescent crustaceans that emerge from shallow sea grass beds and coral reefs some 15 minutes after sunset to put on one of the most sophisticated light shows in nature. The males leave blobs of mucus and radiant chemicals behind them, which hang suspended like glowing ellipses. “The spacing of the dots is species-specific,” Widder explains. “A female knows that if she goes to the end of the right string, she’ll find a male of her species that she can mate with.” This luminous seduction is called the “string of pearls” phenomenon. [Source: Abigail Tucker, Smithsonian magazine, March 2013]

The Eye-in-the-Sea and e-Jelly were deployed in the northern Gulf of Mexico in 2004. Widder placed them on the edge of an eerie undersea oasis called a brine pool, where methane gas boils up and fish sometimes perish from the excess salt. The camera secure on the bottom, the e-Jelly launched into its choreographed histrionics. Just 86 seconds later, a squid lurched into view. The six-foot-long visitor was completely new to science. When deployed in the Monterey Canyon, Widder’s Eye-in-the-Sea captured stunning footage of giant six-gill sharks rooting in the sand, possibly for pill bugs, a never-before-seen foraging behavior that might explain how they survive in a desolate environment. And in the Bahamas at 2,000 feet, something in the blackness flashed back at the e-Jelly, emitting trails of bright dots. Each time the jelly beckoned, the mystery creature sparkled a response. “I have no idea what we were saying,” she admits, “but I think it was something sexy.” At long last, Widder was engaged in light conversation, most likely with a deep-sea shrimp.

A sensational highlight came last summer in the Ogasawara Islands, about 600 miles south of Japan, when Widder, the e-Jelly and a floating version of the Eye-in-the-Sea called the Medusa joined an effort to film the elusive giant squid in its natural habitat for the first time. Other missions had failed, although one captured footage of a dying giant at the surface. Widder was nervous to use her lure and camera in the midwater, where the devices dangled from a 700-meter cable instead of resting securely on the bottom. But during the second, 30-hour-long deployment, the Medusa glimpsed the squid. “I must have said ‘Oh my God’ 20 times, and I’m an agnostic,” she says of first seeing the footage. The animals can supposedly grow to be over 60 feet long. “It was too big to see the whole thing. The arms came in and touched the e-Jelly. It slid its suckers over the bait.”

She caught more than 40 seconds of footage and a total of five encounters. At one point, the squid “wrapped itself around the Medusa, with its mouth right up near the lens,” Widder says. The huge squid didn’t want the puny little e-Jelly; rather, it was hoping to eat the creature that was presumably bullying it. Another scientist on the same voyage subsequently filmed a giant squid from the submarine, and that footage, along with Widder’s, made headlines. It was e-Jelly’s pulsating light that roused the giant in the first place, making history. “Bioluminescence,” Widder says, “was the key.”

Bioluminescence and Humans

Florescent protein extracted from a North Pacific jellyfish have been used to make the human brain glow so its cells can be studied by scientists. The same protein has been used to make green-glowing engineered mice and provide color for the film version of the Hulk.

Abigail Tucker wrote in Smithsonian magazine: Much of Widder’s early funding came from the U.S. Navy. Tiny creatures that could highlight the shape of a hidden submarine are a national security concern, so Widder invented a tool to measure light levels. Called a HIDEX, it sucks large amounts of seawater, and any bioluminescent animals within, into a light-tight chamber and reads their glow. “It tells you about the distribution of organisms in the water column,” she says. [Source: Abigail Tucker, Smithsonian magazine, March 2013]

Scientists are hotly pursuing applications for bioluminescent technology, particularly in medical research, where they hope it will change how we treat maladies from cataracts to cancer. Widder is focused on the uses of luminous bacteria, which are extremely sensitive to a wide array of environmental pollutants.

Nobel Prize and Bioluminescent Jellyfish

In 2008, Japanese biologist Osamu Shimonmura won the Noble Prize in Chemistry for discovering and developing a glowing jellyfish protein that has helped shed light on such key processes as the spread of cancer, the development of brain cells, the growth of bacteria, damage to cells by Alzheimer’s disease, and the development of insulin-producing cells in the pancreas.

Osamu Shimomura works at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Wood Hole, Massachusetts and the Boston University Medical School. He discovered the jellyfish protein, green fluorescent protein, or GFP, after extracting it from 100,000 jellyfish caught off the coast of Washington state, and figured out how to isolate it. American Martin Chalfie and Roger Tsien explored how it worked and applied it to medicine and other fields.

Cambrian bioluminescence

Shimomura needed a large number of jellyfish to extract and refine GFP. He collected them with the help of students, assistant researchers and his wife and kids. At certain times of the years the jellyfish that bore GFP — “Aequora victoreai” — were so thick local people said you could walk on water. For his research Shimomura needed about 3,000 jellyfish a day which were collected from a pier with long-handled nets and buckets. Many locals thought he intended to eat the jellyfish as sashimi. Over the past decade the number of jellyfish off the Washington coast have declined drastically and it is no longer easy to collect huge masses of them.

Cutting up the jellyfish was another problem. At first Simomura used scissors but later refashioned a meat slicer that he bought at a hardware store. He then dedicated himself to extracting and purifying GFP. In 1979 Shimomura unraveled the structure of GFP and discovered how it became luminous. At this juncture in his career he showed one scientist a fluid solution of GFP, saying “This has been purified from 100,000 jellyfish.”

GFP turns green when exposed to ultraviolet light and easily attaches to other protein whose movements can be tracked. . The Swedish Academy compared the discovery GFP to the development of the microscope and said the protein has been “a guiding star for biochemist, biologist, medical scientists and other researchers.” Shimomura told the Daily Yomiuri, “I was able to extract aequorin because I thought other researchers ideas were wrong...I became successful because I tried to extract only the illuminating substance.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons; YouTube, Animal Diversity Web, NOAA

Text Sources: Animal Diversity Web (ADW); National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); Wikipedia, National Geographic, Live Science, BBC, Smithsonian, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The New Yorker, Reuters, Associated Press, Lonely Planet Guides and various books and other publications.

Last Updated March 2023

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