Monday 27 May 2024


This showy Christmas Cracker is a Dinoflagellate

The showy royal blue Christmas cracker looking fellow you see here is a dinoflagellate. 

Bioluminescent dinoflagellates are a type of plankton — teensy marine organisms that make the seaways shimmer as you swim through them or the tide crashes them against the shore. 

The first modern dinoflagellate was described by Baker in 1753, the first species was formally named by Muller in 1773. 

The first fossil forms were described by Ehrenberg in the 1830s from Cretaceous outcrops. More dinoflagellates have lived, died and gone extinct than there are living today. We know them mainly from fossil dinocysts dating back to the Triassic. They are one of the most primitive of the eukaryotic group with a fossil record that may extend into the Precambrian. They combine primitive characteristics of prokaryotes and advanced eukaryotic features.

The luciferase found in dinoflagellates is related to the green chemical chlorophyll found in plants. Their twinkling lights are brief, each containing about 100 million photons that shine for only a tenth of a second. While each individual flicker is here and gone in the wink of an eye, en masse they are breathtaking. I have spent several wondrous evenings scuba diving amongst these glittering denizens off our shores. What you know about light above the surface does not hold true for the light you see as bioluminescence. Its energy and luminosity come from a chemical reaction. 

In a luminescent reaction, two types of chemicals — luciferin and luciferase — combine together. Together, they produce cold light — light that generates less than 20% thermal radiation or heat. 

The light you see is produced by a compound called Luciferin. It is the shiny, showy bit in this chemical show. Luciferase acts as an enzyme, the substance that acts as a catalyst controlling the rate of chemical reactions, allowing the luciferin to release energy as it is oxidized. 

The colour of the light depends on the chemical structures of the chemicals. There are more than a dozen known chemical luminescent systems, indicating that bioluminescence evolved independently in different groups of organisms.

Coelenterazine is the type of luciferin we find in shrimp, fish and jellyfish. Dinoflagellates and krill share another class of unique luciferins, while ostracods or firefleas and some fish have a completely different luciferin — but all produce lights of various colours to great effect.