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iLabs: Meet Pyrocystis from flask #21 — Bioluminescence in the Micro World Investigate Lab

July 14, 2014

Our lab staff member, Nancy Locquet, offers us insight into some of the amazing “beings” in our lab… (and that’s in addition to our staff and visitors! 🙂 )


By Nancy Locquet, Micro World iLab Staff Member

This is flask # 21. It’s hard to believe that some incredibly interesting organisms are growing inside this flask. Can you see the brown specks? These are actually bioluminescent algae, algae that produce a blue light when shaken up by waves, boats, predators, or in our case … a plastic disk made out of a biodegradable plastic cup.

Flask with Pyrocystis fusiformis

The brown specks in Flask 21 are bioluminescent algae called Pyrocystis fusiformis. The name comes from the word “Pyro,” meaning fire, and “cystis,” meaning cell. The word “fusiformis” refers to the spindle (football) shape of the cells.

The scientific name for these marine algae is Pyrocystis fusiformis. These algae are Phytoplankton and usually live in coastal waters of tropical and sub-tropical oceans at depths between 60 and 100 meters. But not the ones living in flask #21.

Why are the Pyrocystis cells from flask #21 so special? These cells aren’t shipped to us from a supplier in California, where we have often obtained them in the past. We were able to grow these in a small aquarium in our lab, something we had not tried before.

A few months ago, we started experimenting with different container sizes to house them in. A few cells were transferred (subcultured) from one of the flasks that make up our Bioluminescence exhibit, into fresh ocean water (fresh growth medium) in a small aquarium.

Fish tank used to grow the bioluminescent dinoflagellate, Pyrocystis fusiformis.

One of the Micro World Investigate Lab’s small fish tanks has become a home for bioluminescent dinoflagellates.

After a few weeks, we saw brown specks floating on top of the water. This looked very promising until a week later we started to see brown clumps of algae at the bottom of the aquarium. Thinking that those cells at the bottom of the aquarium were dead, we wanted to examine these algae. To do this, we took a 50-microliter sample and placed it under the microscope.

The Pyrocystis cell on the left has just divided.

The Pyrocystis cell on the left just divided and two “babies” can be seen inside the original cell wall.

This is what we saw…YES!!! They were still alive, but not kicking…in fact none of these cells move a lot despite the fact that they belong to the group “Dinoflagellates,” microscopic algae that whirl around with two whip-like tails called “flagellum”.

After a few weeks, Pyrocystis cells were covering the entire water surface of the aquarium.

So we took a 500 ml Erlenmeyer flask, rinsed and filled it with ocean water, and labeled it #21. We then took some cells from the water surface of the aquarium and gently released them into the 350 ml ocean water in the flask.

So now the question is, What will be the fate of flask #21’s inhabitants? 

Will they reproduce? Will they adapt when we reverse their day/night cycle (we do this so that the flasks in our exhibit think it’s night time, when you come to visit during the day) ?? Will they flash when we stir them in our “night box”???

Only time will tell.

Watch this space to find out the fate of flask #21!


4 Comments leave one →
  1. permalink
    July 14, 2014 12:47 pm

    Hi Deb, well let me know if they flash later.

    • July 14, 2014 1:28 pm

      I most certainly will! Thanks for following the blog and all your interest! 🙂

  2. September 4, 2014 3:31 pm

    Any update?

    • September 4, 2014 5:52 pm

      Actually there is one almost ready to post, so yes, we will be updating shortly! Thank you for your interest and request. 🙂

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