Bioluminescence is an ability shared by creatures around the planet that allows them to generate light – in fact, 90% of life in the world’s oceans possess this characteristic. Whereas most animals use it to help them find food, attract mates, and defend against predators, a marine biologist is harnessing bioluminescent bacteria to save one of Florida’s most precious and threatened ecosystems – the Indian River Lagoon. By mixing bioluminescent bacteria with sediment from the 156-mile estuary, renowned scientist Dr. Edith Widder is able to determine how many toxic chemicals are present in the water.
Widder is able to determine how polluted the sediment is by measuring how quickly the light dims as the chemicals kill samples of Vibrio fischeri bacteria. Widder believes that this method gives scientists a better indication of how polluted the estuary is, rather than simply measuring the level of chemicals in the water.
Speaking to the New York Times, Dr. Widder said: “Pollution in water is transient but in sediment it’s persistent”. She added that her studies had already revealed high concentrations of heavy metals and nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen. These elements can cause runaway algae growth, which consumes the majority of oxygen in the river, killing everything else.
Widder’s research has placed sensors all around the estuary in order to beam real-time water data such as current and flow direction to her lab. With this data and the measurements of the river’s toxicity, Widder believes she can trace the source of pollution. Widder’s methods have won the approval of George Jones, executive director of Indian Riverkeeper, and Bruce Robison, a senior scientist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in California.“The potential benefits of Edie’s efforts are huge, ” Jones added.
As for Widder, she’s more modest about her efforts, but believes in their potential. “It’s my belief that if we can make pollution visible, and let people know what small things they are doing are actually making an improvement in this incredible environment,” she said, “I think it could make a huge difference. It can be a game-changer.”