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David Gruber on Microscopic Glowing Aliens

On Exhibit posts

Curator John Sparks is blogging weekly about the upcoming exhibition, Creatures of Light, which opens on Saturday, March 31. This week, he invited marine biologist David Gruber, an assistant professor at The City University of New York (CUNY) and a Museum research associate who consulted on the exhibition, to contribute the guest post below.

Imagine a group of single-celled animals smaller than the width of a human hair that possess 25 times the amount of DNA as humans. These organisms both bask in the sun to obtain energy, like plants, and actively hunt, like animals, even slurping out the insides of other cells. They include some of the fastest speed demons of the microscopic domain, propelling themselves up to 200-500 μm/second—the equivalent to a 6-foot Olympian athlete swimming at 40 mph. On top of these feats, a few members are responsible for creating the nighttime sparkle on breaking surf.

These creatures, seemingly out of Swiss surrealist H.R. Giger’s alien bestiary, are the dinoflagellates. We’ve been culturing several species of these extraordinary bioluminescent “dinos” at both CUNY and the Museum in order to feature these live organisms in the upcoming exhibition Creatures of Light. (The exhibition will also feature live flashlight fish.)

In the run-up to the exhibition, we’ve also travelled to Bioluminescent Bay in Vieques, Puerto Rico, to test out our low-light cameras and to examine a species of bioluminescent dinoflagellate that finds this bay delightful, amassing to abundances of 6,000 individuals per tablespoon of water. In the video below, a boat passes through the Bioluminescent Bay and dinoflagellates illuminate the wake with their blue light.

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