Anne Renwick discusses bioluminescence (with a brief detour to fluorescence), her hands-on experience with it, and how it illuminates the dark nights in The Elemental Steampunk World.


Speaker 1: (00:01)
Hello, I’m Anne Renwick, steampunk romance author taking you behind the scenes of The Elemental Steampunk Series in my podcast Into the Laboratory. You can find episode show notes, add into the or for more information about my books and free short stories, visit that’s Anne with an e. Welcome to my laboratory.

Speaker 2: (00:26)
This is Anne Renwick, steampunk romance author bringing you into the laboratory. For today’s topic, we’ll talk about bioluminescence and to a lesser degree fluorescence. If you’ve read The Golden Spider, you may recall the opening scene where I have two agents tracking down a suspect, and at one point they pull out something I’ve called a decilamp. What’s a decilamp? Well, if you’ve done any sciences, you’ve run into the metric system, you’ve got meters and liters. Perhaps you might recall hearing deciliter or decimeter. That’s one 10th of a liter, one 10th of a meter. So I named this little handheld sort of flashlight, or if you’re British, a torch, a decilamp. Throughout the book. There are a few occasions in which my characters use this bioluminescent light and if you read it, you’ll see that they’ll often pick up this torch, this flashlight, and they’ll give it a shake first, and the light that comes out tends to either be blue, white, or sort of a blue-green.

Speaker 2: (01:34)
That’s because they’re activating the bioluminescent bacteria within the device to get it to emit the biological light it can create. Later in The Iron Fin, I introduce you to a new kind of illumination that I’ve called the Lucifer lamp. Why Lucifer? Well Lucifer is a name that derives from the term light-bringer, and I chose this name because it directly relates back to the proteins, to the enzymes that are named Luciferin and luciferase. These proteins are responsible for creating the biological light we see and bioluminescent organisms, and they were discovered by a Frenchman, but by the name of Rafael Dubois in the late 1800s so why am I so fascinated by this bio luminescence? Of course, it’s biological light. There’s proteins, there’s enzymes. Yes, of course. That’s part of it. But let me back up and tell you a little bit of a story.

Speaker 2: (02:37)
Back when I was in fourth grade, around the age of nine or so, my family took a trip to Puerto Rico and Puerto Rico is special because it has three bioluminescent bays and it’s not bacteria in the water that are causing bioluminescence here. Instead, it’s a dinoflagellate, a plankton that will burst into a burst into light when it feels some sort of pressure against its cell wall. So you can imagine when you sail a little boat through it, the wake of the boat will stir up these bacteria and they will flash this sort of blue green or the waves crashing on the shore. You’ll see blue, green flashes of light. Right now, the brightest of the three bays is known as Mosquito Bay and this is a bay located off a smaller island off the coast of Puerto Rico and it’s apparently the brightest in the world. You can visit it today. I think it’s protected. They were a little bit scared back in um, 2017 when the hurricane Maria came through because the bay actually went dark. And they were all very much worried. But no worries. It came back even brighter than before. And as a subject of much study because of that. Now back when I was in fourth grade, about the age of eight or nine, my family took this trip to Puerto Rico and on our tourist destination was something known as simply Bioluminescent Bay. This particular bay is located on the southern shore and you can still visit it today though apparently it is, compared to 25 years ago, very poor. The bioluminescence has greatly decreased, whether it’s light pollution, overdevelopment, run off into the water. These bioluminescent bays, regardless of where they are, very ecologically sensitive. In Puerto Rico, it’s, they’re surrounded by these mangroves and they require very specific salinity, very specific currents. They require this sort of protection. So if the ecological system in which they exist degrades, there’s a chance that this particular bay is definitely the most at risk for right now, that it will simply ceased to exist. So when I visited this particular bay, we took a glass bottomed, wasn’t much more than a rowboat out into the bay, and our tour guide had a bucket. As we sailed along, you could drag your hands in the water and as you splashed up the water, these sort of sparks would, would happen. That it’s a brief flash of light. It’s a blue green light at about 470 nanometers. And again, this is when you sort of put pressure against the cell wall. These dinoflagellates, will do a burst of blue, green light, and you’ll see the wake of the boat, you’ll see the waves on the shore, you can track your hands and splash the water. You can scoop up a bucket of water and throw it in the air. And the fountain, that results just flashes with all these little lights. It was gorgeous. It made, very much made an impression on me. So if you ever have a chance to visit one of these bioluminescent bays while you’re traveling, don’t miss out.

So why blue? Because Blue Green, this particular wavelength will transmit the furthest in water, whereas a color such as red is really quickly absorbed, especially the deeper go. You’ll just stop seeing the red light. So now if you live in the United States, there is a chance that you might get to catch a glimpse of some bioluminescent dinoflagellates a little bit closer to home. Keep an ear out, if you live near the shores, for a red tide, when you hear the word red tide, the first thing that comes to mind is not a positive image. That’s because some red tides can produce harmful algae blooms that produce ammonia and overgrowth of algae and shellfish and other animals can eat them, producing toxins that you know, very harmful. On the other hand, sometimes a red tide doesn’t produce these toxins and sometimes a red tide is actually bioluminescent. You’ll see the red sort of washing in in the waves during the day. But if you go out at night, if it’s bioluminescent one, you’re treated to quite the show as the waves thrash and – pressure on the cell walls – and they flashed this beautiful blue. I myself have not seen this with the red tide, but if you have I’d love to hear about it. Email me.

At this point, I’d like to pause for just a moment and take a look at something called fluorescence. Bioluminescence and fluorescence are not at all the same thing with biological florescence. The light is not being produced by the organism itself, not directly. What the organism is making is a fluorescent protein molecule. This protein molecule will, when exposed to certain wavelengths of light, will absorb photons, so tons of light, which will excite the electrons in this particular molecule and raise them to a higher energy level. Then as the electrons fall back down to the lower energy level, they’re going to emit light, so the light comes in at a short wavelength and as it falls down, a light with a longer wavelength is emitted. This fluorescence, however, as a protein has all sorts of amazing uses for biological scientists. I myself ended up using GFP, which stands for green fluorescent protein, to study a particular cell surface molecule involved in cell migration. These molecules are proteins, which means the DNA of the organism is actually coding for them.

Speaker 2: (08:24)
So if you sequence this particular section of an organism’s genome, you can extract the DNA that codes for this fluorescent protein. If you can extract this DNA, well, now we’re setting ourselves up to be able to do some genetic engineering. You can take that segment of DNA and you can attach it using PCR to other proteins. Once we had this DNA sequence in our hands, it enabled scientists to be able to insert this green fluorescent protein just about wherever they wanted. If you look in the literature, you can see scientists who’ve made glowing green organisms. For example, if they hooked this green fluorescent protein to another protein that was expressed in the skin, you could make the whole organism glow. In my case, we wanted to study a particular cell surface protein, so I spent a lot of time doing some genetic engineering. I’ll spare you the details, but the end result was that basically we took the sequence for this protein I was studying. We put in something called a tail. Really just a straight stretch of DNA. And then we hooked in the DNA for green fluorescent protein. This meant when the DNA became a messenger RNA, became a protein. It folded the front half into my cell surface protein, and it folded the back half of this DNA sequence into gree fluorescent protein. So wherever my protein went, the green fluorescent protein followed. In short, we were able to put this particular DNA into a cell. It turned into a protein, and I was able to use fluorescence microscopy to shine that first light at it and then it would fluoresce back a green and I could see exactly in the cell where my particular protein was moving. So that was pretty cool.

So that brings us back to bioluminescence. What exactly is bioluminescence? How was it different from fluorescence? Well, bioluminescence, which is a primarily a marine phenomenon – you don’t see it in fresh water and you don’t see it a lot on land except in a few insects. Fireflies for example, or lightning bugs as you may call them. And and some fungi, mushrooms. So bioluminescence is the production of light by an organism using a chemical reaction. This chemical reaction occurs between Luciferin and Luciferase. That’s the Lucifer light that I mentioned earlier. So what Luciferin is, is it’s this protein and luciferase, also a protein, but it’s an enzyme in the presence of oxygen, a protein molecule known as Luciferin will, with the assistance of an enzyme, Luciferase, react to form a molecule called oxyluciferin. From this molecule as it decays, is what emits light. So this reaction is only in one direction. You can’t take oxyluciferin and turn it back into Luciferin. So the organism will need to either keep eating or keep producing Luciferin to continue making a bioluminescent light. Now, this reaction is fairly straight forward in some species, but others need something called a cofactor. Some animals or creatures are going to need calcium or magnesium ions, and sometimes they need something called ATP, adenosine triphosphate, a form of cellular energy.

Speaker 2: (11:59)
So why would we want bioluminescence in the first place? What benefit is this to the organism? There are several reasons why you might want to produce biological light. For example, you may want to do something called counter illumination that helps an organism match its background. So if you were looking up into the sky, you might want to see a blue light because that’s what the sky is. You can sort of see this in sharks and dolphins. If you think about them, they’re white on their belly and there’s sort of a bluish gray on top. So if you’re looking down into the ocean, you see the gray bluish waters and the dolphin’s skin color will be about the same. Whereas if you are beneath them in the water and you’re looking up, you’ll see the white color, which will tend to blend more with the sky.

Speaker 2: (12:50)
Why else might you want to be bioluminescent. Mimicry. Camouflage? You may want to look like something else in your environment. Another reason to do bioluminescence is to lure prey towards you. You want to attract dinner. So instead of chasing it down, it comes to you. On the other hand, you might want to repulse something. You might want to confuse or repel your predators so they don’t come for you. Another possible use of bioluminescence is to signal to others of your kind. It’s a form of communication. For example, those fireflies out in your backyard are signaling to attract mates.

Another possible use for bioluminescence is just to create light. All oceanic creatures are sensitive to the blue, white, blue, green spectrum of light in the water. They don’t see red light, so there’s one creature, the black dragon fish, which creates a red bioluminescent glow. This, they’ve managed to create sort of a system to reverse engineer the light so that they see their red light as a blue or a green color, but the other animals around them can’t see this red glow. So the black dragon fish can see its prey, but as the prey cannot see the color red, they never see their predator coming.

So how many different kinds of bioluminescence are there? Scientists who study this have basically classified the bioluminescence into six different classes. We have the bacteria who create bioluminescence. That’s group one.

Our second group are the dinoflagellates. Those are the ones that we find in the bioluminescent bays. They’re the ones we find who create the red tides.

A third class of bioluminescence is fungal. This is a green glow emitted by wood decaying mushrooms and other fungi. In fact, you may have of the term foxfire, the sort of lures people into the forest. That’s a fungal bioluminescence.

There’s a fourth class of bioluminescence called vargulin. These are produced by something called seed shrimp and the fish that eat them.

There’s a fifth class of bio luminescence that I’m going to struggle to pronounce. It looks like, coelenterazine. In any case, this bioluminescence is produced by a number of animals. Jellyfish produce bioluminescence to lure in prey. Um, a number of mollusks will do this. The squid, for example. Shrimp and other crustaceans are in this category. There are a number of marine worms that produce bioluminescence and according to the sources I consulted, earthworms are apparently capable of producing a range of bioluminescent colors from blue to orange. I’ve not personally witnessed this, but again, if you have, I’d love to hear about it.

And I’ve saved the groups of fish in this category for last, there are a few sharks, cartilaginous fish you can produce bioluminescence and there are quite a number of fish who also produce this bioluminescence light. Some of you might be thinking of the classic Angler Fish, which we were all introduced to in Finding Nemo, that seemed to sort of have a stalk coming out of their forehead with their own personal lantern dangling in front of them. This is the Angler fish, fascinating and scary-looking at the same time.

For our sixth and final category, we have firefly luciferin. These are the bioluminescent flashes produced by lightning bugs in this particular class of Lucifer and requires ATP to produce its biological light. Now you’re probably wondering what about on land? Well, we actually don’t see much bioluminescent light produced on land at all. In fact, no multicellular plants produce bioluminescence. Amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals, none of them produce bioluminescent light naturally. Now I add that last caveat because when I was a student in college, I remember flipping through the book and finding recombinant DNA information. And on that page was a picture of a tobacco plant that had, had engineered into it firefly luciferase. And that was the very first time I encountered this particular enzyme in science. And I was fascinated. So what they had done was take the DNA sequence for luciferase and presumably luciferin, and they’d moved them into this tobacco plant. And as the plant grew, they managed to get it to produce bioluminescence. So it’s not outside the realm of DNA, technology and possibilities that we can actually take amphibians, reptiles, birds or mammals, and create, artificially, an organism that can produce its own bioluminescent light.

So in The Iron Fin I introduced the concept of the Lucifer lamp. This is all stemming from bioluminescence. So when I wrote the section where she’s arriving back on land from her boat, she’s carrying a Lucifer lamp with her. Why does she need to bring the Lucifer lamp with her from the boat? Well because this particular lamp is biological. She’s been away from home for a long time, so here’s the passage. Let me read it.

First things first, she would begin by tending the lights and dispelling the gloom, setting down the Lucifer lamp she brought from the boat, Isa drew and I drop her from the drawer of the hallway table with the tug on the pulley rope the overhead light fixture lowered peering into its basin. She was relieved to find the gel matrix still adequately hydrated, though the bioluminescent bacteria had long since died. She transferred a measure of bacteria from her boat’s light into the hall lamp, adding a sprinkle of powdered agar and other nutrients. Hoisting it aloft, she wound the rocking mechanism and stood back. The gel oozed from one end of the long cylinder to the other, slowly mixing bacteria with food and oxygen, rewarding her with a few tiny faint blue sparks.

Here you can see now that I’ve explained bioluminescence to you as a biological light, why she had to use an eyedropper. That bacteria that lived in her, the light that was in her hallway, were dead. So she transfers some of the living bacteria. She gives them some food, agar, nutrients. And then it needs oxygen. So the mechanism is going to rock back and forth. This mixes the bacteria with food and oxygen and slowly as the bacteria continued to divide and multiply and grow stronger, they will produce this light. So she then proceeds to go through the House and inoculate all the lamps, get them working again.

So this is interesting because as I was looking through various information online about bioluminescence, I stumbled into a company that is trying to do almost exactly that in real life. Now. Historically, people had been looking at bioluminescent organisms and wondering how they could use them as a source of illumination for a long time. For example, people in Britain and Europe in general, were interested in using some sort of bioluminescent light down in the mines because that would avoid any sort of open flame that might cause an explosion of those dangerous gases that were gathering down in the tunnels. In fact, some of them went so far as to use sort of dead fish skins hung on the wall. I can’t imagine how bright that was. I have no idea. And a few of them actually caught fireflies and put them in a jar, took them with them, the safe sort of light.

Now, Google must have been paying attention to all my research on bioluminescence because it decided to show me an advertisement on Facebook for this French company.

Speaker 2: (20:58)
Glowee. Glowee, G. L. O. W. E. E. is a company based in Paris that is actually trying to take bioluminescence from the ocean, the plankton, I believe is what they’re working with, and they’re trying to grow lights in their laboratories. They’re working to increase the intensity of the light. They’re trying to increase the stability of the organisms that produce this light, not only do they want them to live longer, they want them to handle the situation, the water situation, well. They need to handle a wider range of temperatures, both colder and warmer. They’re working to make it so these organisms require less food and perhaps tolerate lower levels of oxygen. Another point that Glowee makes is that this biological light, unlike our harsh LEDs or incandescent bulbs, actually produces a light that’s very soothing so your eyes can actually adjust to a sort of nighttime light and this would be ultimately healthier for humans as a whole.

Speaker 2: (22:07)
If per chance you’re traveling to Paris, France, I know they have sort of glow rooms that you can visit to see what they’re up to. I don’t know what their availability is to the public or if you can simply show up, but wouldn’t that be an awesome behind the scenes tour to see not only the glow room but the laboratories where they’re producing this? I’ll be sure to link to their company to this video I watched in the show notes. So if you want to learn more about Glowee, check there later.

As a final note on my fascination with bioluminescence, I should say that it stems of course from its biological origins, but I’m also aware of steampunk’s focus on the industrial revolution and its dependence upon coal, burning coal. And I’m aware of the ramifications that this will have down the line. So slipping in my biological light is a small way to make part of my world a tiny bit more sustainable.

Thank you so much for listening. I hope you enjoyed hearing about bioluminescence and to a lesser extent fluorescence. I love putting biological light into my stories. If you have any personal experience with either, email me and tell me your story. Next time I’ll be talking about a question I’m often asked, how do you come up with those strange names for the things in your stories? The short answer, I use Greek and Latin word roots. If you want the long story, tune in next time to Into the Laboratory.

Thank you for listening today. I hope you found it interesting. If so, you can find my backlist episodes and show where you can also contact me with any questions you’d like answered or simply let me know what you thought about the show if you’d like to try my books. The Tin Rose is a short story available everywhere. Rust and Steam is an exclusive short story for my newsletter subscribers. You can find both at forward slash free hyphen books. Remember that’s Anne with an “e”. If you’d like to connect, you can find me on Facebook and in my readers group, the Department of Cryptobiology. See you at the next laboratory meeting.