Rick Robinson

Aug 9th 2018

Faerie Lights: A Bright Future for Bioluminescence Technology


There is something enchanting about bioluminescence — visible light produced by living creatures. You’ve seen this exhibited in fireflies, or microscopic plankton that sometimes light up nighttime ocean surf from within. Bioluminescence is like a soft, cool fire that you can hold in your hand.

Yet, this rather magical natural phenomenon can have practical uses that are drawing new attention to bioluminescence technology. From offering a power-free light source to its role in medical research and military defense, this technology has a host of potential applications.

Putting Living Lights to Work

Natural bioluminescence is a surprisingly widespread phenomenon. As Hakai Magazine reported, bioluminescence uses have been put to work for centuries. Coal miners, for example, used fireflies trapped in jars as safety lights for working in mines where any flame, as from a candle or lantern, might trigger an explosion.

Today, pioneers on the frontier where art meets technology are putting bioluminescence to work. Wired featured one Dutch designer who has put her background in biology to work by developing lamps that are illuminated by glowing bacteria.

Meanwhile, according to New Scientist, a French company is marketing bioluminescent lighting for store windows — electric lights in Paris store windows are restricted by law during the late evening and early morning hours, providing an incentive for store owners to invest in electricity-free bioluminescent window lighting.

Oceans Deeply noted that bioluminescence is also used to detect cancer cells. Cells are injected with a bioluminescence-producing chemical called luciferase. If a glow is detected, it shows that dying cancer cells are releasing the chemical, letting researchers determine whether a therapy is effective at killing cancer cells.

Bioluminescence Uses in Technology and Defense

Bioluminscence has played an interesting roll in defense history. For example, during World War II, per Hakai Magazine, Japanese troops used light from tiny dried crustaceans they called “sea fireflies” to read maps and documents. Not only did the lights require no batteries, the light was subtle enough to avoid detection by the enemy.

Bioluminescence technology has been used to detect enemy submarines, going back almost exactly one hundred years. According to Atlas Obscura, the lookouts on a British ship cruising off the coast of Spain in November 1918 (during the waning days of World War I) noticed a large underwater glow. Something was triggering bioluminescence in the water, and the British sailors suspected that it might be a German submarine. They attacked, and their suspicion proved correct.

Silent Service, Secret History

During the Cold War, attention turned to the potential of bioluminescence for detecting Soviet Russian submarines. In 1966, according to Atlas Obscura, a Navy report called attention to ocean bioluminescence as “‘sadly neglected for a long time.'” The long neglect was ending, especially since bioluminescence could now be detected from space.

However, Atlas Obscura explained that harnessing bioluminescence to detect submarines proved challenging, and the problem was still unsolved when the Cold War ended. The focus of defense policy shifted to counterinsurgency and counterterrorism, and antisubmarine warfare (ASW) became a less immediate concern.

However, shifting global geopolitics are again bringing the threat posed by submarines to the fore. In 2016 The New York Times reported on Adm. Mark Ferguson’s statement that Russia’s submarine patrols had increased by 50 percent.

Although ASW research is highly classified, it is a good guess that bioluminescence technology is again being explored for clues that might reveal potential enemy submarines, along with all the other defense missions that this technology can support.