What makes underwater animals glow?

02 November 2008

Question

What makes underwater animals glow?

Answer

Helen - Underwater animals glow a lot; much more than on land. That comes down to the fact there isn't any light once you get only not very far down into the sea. They do tend to glow and it's a chemical reaction. It happens in all sorts of different ways. Some creatures use a type of bacteria. Some creatures use their own chemicals which are then put together. It's essentially something that a general group of compounds that we'll call luciferins which naturally undergo a reaction with an enzyme that catalyses that reaction. That's called luciferase. It turns luciferin into something called oxyluciferin which, at the same time, produces light. One of the reasons why light is important: it's a good way of communicating in the dark .It's also a good way of snooping in the dark. One of the most clever fish is something called a loosejaw fish which is a malacostade. They actually cheat because most of the light in the ocean that are created by creatures are blue or green. That is actually the light that can be seen down there mostly. The red lights get absorbed much earlier higher up in the water column. This creature called the loosejaw fish creates its own red light. Nothing else can see it because no fish really bother trying to see red light because there isn't any red light down there. If you make your own red light and you can see it yourself then you've got your own secret sensor. Chris - It's a spotlight so you can go searching underwater. Helen - It's ingenious because they can see things, the prey they're after don't know they're being looked at and they can see it. It's really ingenious. Another thing, one of the glowing creatures is the jelly fish. One of the Nobel prizes this year went to three guys: Osamu Shimomura, Martin Chalfie and Roger Tsien who jointly were involved with the green fluorescent protein, GFP, which I think Chris you know all sort about in terms of the molecular world and what's going on inside us. By attaching this glowing thing onto parts of anything you can put it under a microscope and see what you're looking at. It's a really ingenious thing which has been recognized by this Nobel prize.

Chris - GFP is just a fluorescent protein that some animals make but they can grab ultraviolet rays and turn those ultraviolet rays into green light that we can see. It's a clever protein that's capable of doing that.

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