The Secret History of Bioluminescence


In the late 1990s, marine biologist Steven Haddock paid a visit to fellow scientist Osamu Shimomura at his laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. The two researchers shared an obsession with bioluminescence: light produced by chemical reactions in the bodies of living things—most famously the firefly, but also in fungi and a multitude of ocean creatures. At one point during their meeting, Haddock recalls, Shimomura poured what appeared to be large sesame seeds out of a jar and into his hand, dribbled some water onto them, and crushed them into a paste in his fist. Then he shut off the lights. His palm glowed a transfixing blue, as though it held a fairy.

The sesame seeds were in fact the dried bodies of tiny crustaceans known as ostracods. Shimomura explained that during the Second World War, the Japanese army harvested huge numbers of the creatures from the ocean. The cold blue light of umihotaru (sea fireflies) was bright enough for soldiers to read maps and correspondence, but too dim to give away their position to nearby enemies. “It was an easy, simple source of light,” says Shimomura, who is 87. “You just add water. Very convenient. You don’t need any batteries.” By the time Haddock visited Shimomura, the desiccated plankton were many decades old, yet they still retained their power to shine.

Haddock was so enchanted by this tale that he asked Shimomura if he could take a small portion of the ostracods back to his own laboratory at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in California. He keeps them in a container no larger than a spice jar, which he rarely opens. “I’ve only tested it five or six times,” he says. But if you’re lucky, and the mood strikes, he just might take his little genie lamp off the shelf and conjure that ethereal glow.

For most of human history, no one knew bioluminescent plankton such as ostracods existed. Early explorers puzzled over ribbons and specks of light around boats and oars, as well as radiant waves and regions of shining water sometimes known as “milky seas.” Initial attempts to explain such phenomena were often closer to poetry than science. For many, light was akin to fire, even if it was in water. Hai Nei Shih Chou Chi, a fourth- or fifth-century-BCE Chinese text detailing nautical adventures, states that, “one may see fiery sparks when the water is stirred.” Likewise, in the 17th century, French philosopher René Descartes likened the light seen in agitated seawater to sparks struck off flint. During a cruise to Siam in 1688, Jesuit missionary and mathematician Guy Tachard wrote that the Sun had ostensibly “impregnated and filled the sea during the day with an infinity of fiery and luminous spirits.”

In 1753, Benjamin Franklin surmised that some sort of “extremely small animalcule” in water “may yet give a visible light.” Around the same time, naturalists such as Godeheu de Riville, equipped with early microscopes, confirmed that Franklin’s hunch was correct: the ocean’s glints and glows emanated from living things, from tiny “marine insects” we now call plankton.

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article: Ferris Jabr
photo: blickwinkel/Alamy Stock Photo


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