Worms that dazzle the sea with a ‘green glow’

April 2nd, 2009 - 12:21 pm ICT by ANI  

Washington, April 2 (ANI): Researchers at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC (University of California) San Diego have uncovered key clues about bioluminescent worms in the sea that produce a green glow and the biological mechanisms behind their light production.

Research conducted by Scripps marine biologists Dimitri Deheyn and Michael Latz reveals that marine fireworms use bioluminescence to attract suitors in an undersea mating ritual.

The report provides insights into the function of fireworm bioluminescence and moves scientists closer to identifying the molecular basis of the light.

“This is another step toward understanding the biology of the bioluminescence in fireworms, and it also brings us closer to isolating the protein that produces the light,” said Deheyn.

“If we understand how it is possible to keep light so stable for such a long time, it would provide opportunities to use that protein or reaction in biomedical, bioengineering and other fields-the same way other proteins have been used,” he added.

The fireworms used in the study (Odontosyllis phosphorea) are seafloor-dwelling animals that inhabit tropical and sub-tropical shallow coastal areas.

During summer reproductive events known as “swarming,” females secrete a luminous green mucus-which often draws the attention of human seafarers-before releasing gametes into the water.

The bright glow attracts male fireworms, which also release gametes into the bright green cloud.

The precisely timed bioluminescent displays have been tracked like clockwork in Southern California, the Caribbean and Japan, peaking one to two days before each quarter moon phase, 30 to 40 minutes after sunset and lasting approximately 20 to 30 minutes.

Deheyn and Latz collected hundreds of specimens from San Diego’s Mission Bay for their study, allowing them to not only examine live organisms but also produce the fireworms’ luminous mucus for the first time in an experimental setting.

The achievement provided a unique perspective and framework for examining the biology behind the worm’s bioluminescent system.

A central finding is that the fireworms’ bioluminescent light appears to play a role beyond attracting mates.

The researchers found that juveniles produce bioluminescence as flashes, leading to a determination that the light also may serve as a defensive mechanism, intended to distract predators.

Through experiments that included hot and cold testing and oxygen depletion studies, Deheyn and Latz found that the bioluminescence is active in temperatures as low as minus 20 degrees Celsius.

Based on these tests, the researchers believe the chemical process responsible for the bioluminescence may involve a specific light-producing protein-also called a “photoprotein.”

Further identification and isolation will be pursued in future studies. (ANI)

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