The profoundly stunning photo behind this text shows the beauty of bioluminescence, the entirely natural phenomenon that allows sea creatures in the deepest, darkest waters of the ocean to produce their own light. Animals are able to do this because of an internal chemical reaction involving the light emitting molecule luciferin and the enzyme luciferase. The catalytic reaction is an oxidation reaction meaning luciferin reacts with oxygen with the help of a little energy-releasing molecule called ATP or adenosine triphosphate. The result is further oxygen, reformed luciferin, carbon dioxide, and…light! In some organisms, a little help is required and the reaction takes place in the presence of small molecules called co-factors i.e calcium or magnesium. For sea dwellers, use of the light is wide and varied ranging from defense to communication but for humans, its pure, natural beauty has inspired incredible creativity. Although researchers are currently trying to harness this light energy to create bioluminescent trees to light our streets and bulbs to light our homes, two artists – Erika Blumenfeld and Rebecca Klee are using it to make bespoke installations.
Rebecca Klee joined forces with microbiologist Siouxsie Wills to partake in Australia's Auckland Art in the Dark festival. Klee found Wills after seeing her YouTube video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KCobcWsYOS8) about a Hawaiian squid called a Hawaiian bobtail squid that is able to camouflage itself by producing, effectively, an invisibility cloak. It is able to do so with the help of bacteria called Vibrio fisheri which it stores in its mantle (the bulbous part of it's body). The bacteria are bioluminescent and are able to produce a glow that mimics moonlight through water, effectively hiding the squid in a technique called counter-illumination. It was agreed that the best way to showcase the bacteria was inside suspended models of the squid and so they used a 3D printer to print copies of the Hawaiian bobtail squid. They then set about working to identify in which condition the bacteria were brightest and which liquid broth they grew in best. The fisheri possess a feedback system that tells them when enough bacteria have been replicated to begin biolumination as too small a number would not create a bright enough light as necessary for the exhibition. An image of their work can be seen here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/80568331@N04/10760541386/in/photostream/
The second artist; Erika Blumenfeld used the bioluminescent plankton; Pyrocystis Fusiformis, found in the sea to create her art. These plankton, although largely invisible without a microscope, produce 50% of the air we breathe and are therefore integral to the earth and all that live on her. Industrialisation and climate change cause acidification and temperature fluctuations that put plankton populations at risk. Keen to bring awareness to this cause, Blumenfeld engaged with Dr Michael Lutz from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Blumenfeld noticed that when she tapped a bag containing bioluminescent plankton, she sent a vibration that moved through the bag and triggered the plankton to glow. When the plankton are passed through an agitation chamber, a completely chaotic environment is created but by controlling it with a slow flow rate and low concentration of plankton, the artist was able to capture stunning photographs where each light indicates an individual organism. Blumenfeld's work can be seen here: http://www.erikablumenfeld.com/artworks/gallery/bioluminescence/
Their works are inspired and fascinating to observe but more importantly they serve as a poignant and humbling reminder of humanity's existence on earth. Although we may feel empowered and strong by the way we have managed to harness the world around us to aid our lives, we are still a small part of a much larger ecosystem that has been doing this for hundreds of years and has, created ingenious yet simple designs to aid their own existence. Whilst there may or may not be life in space, the life that resides here on earth is beautiful and varied and we still have so much of it to learn and explore.