Jellyfish and fireflies – what is something these two animals have in common? They both glow! This emission of light by these organisms is called bioluminescence, a term combining the Greek word “bio” meaning “life” and the Latin word “lumen” for “light.” Bioluminescence is produced through a chemical reaction that occurs within cells. Over the years, scientists have gained an appreciation for bioluminescence and have adapted it not only for research and medical purposes , but also as a platform for their passion for art. This artwork, as captivating as the living organisms that it originates from, has become a beautiful way of introducing people to the wonders of biology.
The basic chemical reaction that produces bioluminescence involves molecules called luciferase and luciferin . The luciferase adds an oxygen atom to the luciferin, creating oxyluciferin. As this oxyluciferin reverts back to luciferin, light is released, resulting in bioluminescence. Different animals have luciferases and luciferins that vary slightly, contributing to the multitude of colors of bioluminescent light .
In nature, bioluminescence serves multiple purposes such as attracting prey, communication, and self-defense . In science, bioluminescence has paved the way for techniques to label and image microscopic cells . In art, bioluminescence is becoming a novel tool for artists to light up their canvases or photographs. To learn more about how bioluminescence is evolving to become an artistic platform, I interviewed several artists who are currently using bioluminescence in their work.
Dr. Hunter Cole is currently a lecturer at Loyola University New Orleans, whose background has been heavily influenced by biology and the arts. While earning her Ph.D. in Genetics, Dr. Cole’s interest in art continued to grow and eventually, she became inspired to paint with bioluminescent bacteria. To do so, the bacteria are grown in a clear, nutrient-containing medium prior to being painted onto agar plates. Over time, the bacteria further grow on the agar to a number in which they begin emitting bioluminescence and then die. In Dr. Cole’s piece Living Drawings, she records this cycle of growth and death through a collection of photos to illustrate a collaboration between these living organisms and art.
While she continues to paint with bioluminescent bacteria, her more recent works have been focused on photographing people and objects by the light of bioluminescent bacteria. Her collections focus on various themes such as “innocence” in Bioluminescent Nudes and “passion” in Bioluminescent Wedding. “[Bioluminescence] is kind of an eerie, yet beautiful source of light. The fact that it is from a chemical reaction in a living organism, and not incandescent light or LED lights; I think that’s kind of poetic,” Dr. Cole explains.
Photographing or filming by the light of a living organism isn’t an easy task. Dr. Cole says, “It’s a lot of organization and a lot of prepping the day before. The next day, you have to do all the photographing and all the videotaping because they’re only their brightest for a day.” But her photographs show that this hard work is worth it, as the bioluminescent light in her images contain a unique quality that makes the subject of her works truly shine.
Dr. Siouxsie Wiles is a microbiologist at the University of Auckland, New Zealand focusing on infectious diseases. In addition to her scientific research, Dr. Wiles is a science communicator who has been a strong advocate for sharing scientific ideas with the public. She says, “My career has been built on making nasty bacteria bioluminescent and using them for all sorts of things, including finding new medicines. It seemed only natural to use those creatures as a stepping stone to talk about my own research.” She has curated several exhibitions throughout New Zealand and Australia and has worked with numerous painters to produce beautiful art pieces with bioluminescent bacteria. The day before these exhibits, the artists paint with the invisible bacteria onto large petri dishes that create an image when assembled. “I love seeing what the different artists do with what is quite a difficult medium,” says Dr. Wiles, “It’s like painting on jelly with invisible ink that only becomes visible the next day.”
“As most people think of bacteria as germs, I want the audience to go away with the understanding that they are so much more than that,” says Dr. Wiles.
In addition to working with painters, Dr. Wiles has worked extensively with graphic artists, such as Luke Harris, to create animations for sharing the beauty of bioluminescence. These animations are aimed to share the science behind bioluminescent animals in a way that could be understood by those who are not scientists.
Dr. Wiles’s work has been met with great enthusiasm as she continues to use microbiology and bioluminescence to spark the public’s scientific interest. Though she doesn’t have any art exhibitions planned for the remainder of this year, she has been working on other projects including launching a company that sells kits for people to try out bioluminescent art in their own homes. While the kits aren’t available for overseas shipment yet, this is definitely a project to keep an eye out for!
At-home Bioluminescent Art Kits: www.brightenz.net
Iyvone Khoo is a London-based artist who specializes in using photography and videography to capture visually captivating experiences. Her inspiration to work with bioluminescence came from a personal trip to Mexico. “I found myself amongst the microcosm of plankton below my feet, accompanied by the immense macro cosmos Milky Way above my head, both seemingly infinite,” she says. This initial experience was the beginning of a series of photographic works highlighting bioluminescent plankton, culminating in a series titled Invisible Worlds.
“Bioluminescent organisms are inspiring to work with. There is a magical, spellbinding quality about bioluminescence that happens when one sees these invisible cells glow in front of one’s eyes. Suddenly, an invisible world of life reveals itself,” Iyvone says. This inspiration led to her collaboration with Dr. Michael Latz from the Scripps Institute of Oceanography to create Invisible Worlds. Dr. Latz specifically researches Dinoflagellates, a species of bioluminescent plankton, and has had much experience working with other artists in the past . With the expertise and equipment from Dr. Latz’s lab, Iyvone filmed hours of footage of dinoflagellates responding to different sounds, including music and the human heartbeat. This footage was built into an installation called the Infinity Cube, which is currently on exhibit at the Birch Aquarium at Scripps in San Diego.
The Infinity Cube was built to be more than just a scientific presentation of bioluminescence for the visitors. “The exhibit is purposely set up so that you enter without really knowing what’s going on and you experience this cube,” Dr. Latz explains. He continues, “People respond to it viscerally and that’s what I wanted. I wanted them to respond, not based on the science, but based on the sensory experience.” Dr. Latz believes that the minimalist design of the installation affects visitors without overwhelming them. Iyvone says, “I would like to hope that the viewer comes away from the installation inspired to respect and protect nature.”
The Infinity Cube exhibit will be ending its run at the Birch Aquarium on September 9, so don’t miss out on the opportunity to see it!
Iyvone’s IG: @iyvone_khoo
Iyvone’s Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/iyvonekhoo
Dr. Latz website: https://scripps.ucsd.edu/labs/mlatz/
Shuin (Sue) Park
Staff Writer, Signal to Noise Magazine
PhD Candidate, Department of Medicine/Division of Cardiology, UCLA
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