Shedding light on bioluminescence

Bioluminescence is probably a better known phenomenon in the Cayman Islands than most places in the world. The green light emitting from our corals or plankton is experienced by many of us in the Caribbean as we venture into the water at night. Divers regularly experience the twinkly burst of light as they brush past a barrel sponge or feel like your fins have been sprinkled with ‘tinker-bell’ dust as you leave a trail of sparkling green lights in your wake during a night dive Or perhaps you have taken the Cayman Kayaks Bioluminescence Tour at night and viewed the bioluminescence from above.

Whilst experiencing bioluminescence is one of the most exhilarating experiences underwater at night, there is more to this twinkly phenomenon than meets the eye. Bioluminescence is a chemical reaction which organisms use to produce light, resulting in a fluorescent protein, which we commonly see as a green light. Although it does occur in fresh water or terrestrial organisms, it is most commonplace in salt water organisms. Fluorescent organisms are amazing, not only because they can change energy into light but they span a huge range from corals to fish and appear to have few boundaries. One thing is clear however, many organisms are using their fluorescent abilities to hunt, reproduce or defend themselves; therefore the nature of fluorescent organisms is integral to many ecosystems, from tropical to polar and from shallow to deep.

Slowly we are discovering more about our oceans and in particular the deep, due to better technology. As more of the ocean is made available to research we are learning more about bioluminescence and the range of fluorescent proteins which organisms are producing. Green fluorescent protein was discovered in jelly fish in the 1960s and this research led to the work which received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2008. The Aequorea Victoria jelly fish, featured in the Nobel Prize winning research, produces green fluorescent protein which has been applied to medical research for many human diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, cancer and HIV. The bioluminescent nature of these proteins offers a non-toxic, natural solution to viewing cells and tissues in the body, which in turn helps scientists identify and research diseased cells.

Whilst green fluorescent protein has been studied for several decades, in 1999 red fluorescent protein was first discovered. This form of protein is better suited for studying tissues in the body than the green fluorescent protein, whilst having all the same natural (non-toxic) benefits. In 2008 a bioluminescent coral was discovered at 700m, approximately 2100 ft, off the North West Hawaiian Islands, indicating that not only do we know very little about ‘the deep’ but the secrets that are slowly being unlocked by the ocean hold more keys to our future than we ever could have imagined.

For more information regarding bioluminescence, please see CCMIs website: reefresearch.org.   WH

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