Everything is illuminated

Our fascination with bioluminescence

If you have ever visited a big-city aquarium, you may have marvelled at the luminescent jellyfish undulating in their blue-lit tanks like dreamlike cupcakes. Or perhaps you moved quickly to see more exciting creatures. Like, say, stingrays. Or sharks. Or anacondas. That would be a pity. Because you would have missed a chance to be enlightened.

Enlightenment is the through-line in Michel Anctil’s intelligent new book on the history and science of light production in living organisms. And I do mean enlightenment in both the literal and metaphorical senses of the word. After all, what is science, if not a journey from the darkness into the light? An illumination of previously hidden phenomena. A probing of the mysteries of nature, through our specimens. It is exactly this sort of probing that Anctil writes about in Luminous Creatures, most radiantly.

The book does not represent a scientific breakthrough so much as it makes a new, more comprehensive contribution to the history of research in the field of bioluminescence. It is, yes, an illuminating display of how humans came to solve the puzzles of the light-producing creatures and tapped into their potential. And tap into it we did! As it happens, Anctil’s book comes out in the year when one of the Canada Gairdner International Awards for outstanding contributions to medical science was bestowed upon Karl Deisseroth of Stanford University, for the discovery of optogenetics. The scientists in Dr. Deisseroth’s laboratory figured out how to adapt light-activated bacterial proteins to allow control of individual neurons within systems as complex as the mammalian brain, in effect revolutionizing neuroscience.

Several popular books about bioluminescence (some with lavish illustrations) have been published recently by journalists and science writers, due to the elevated public interest in the subject, driven largely by the current trends in biotechnology. Indeed, these days I teach my undergraduate students about bioluminescent molecular markers and their applications to medicine, genomics, and pharmacology. All of these applications have been made possible due to our knowledge of the chemical mechanisms of light production, and all of them, as Anctil reminds us, are indebted to the generations of intrepid scientists who brought us out of our ignorance of living lights (superstition, obscurantism, or myth) to our current scientific understanding.

As an honorary professor of biology at Université de Montréal, Anctil has done actual research in the field of bioluminescence, and this expertise makes him a reliable travel guide into the human fascination with it, a fascination that stretches back from antiquity to the Renaissance, through the Age of Enlightenment, past the oceanographic enterprises of the nineteenth century, and all the way to the biotech start-ups of the present day. Anctil deftly charts the course of scientific inquiry in the subject, all the while contextualizing his narrative with abundant citations of scientific literature (the bibliography is forty-eight pages long). Indeed, Anctil handles an impressively massive amount of material, cataloguing and dissecting a multitude of luminescent specimens, each staggering in its complexity, in the way an intrepid histologist might have done two hundred years ago on board an ocean-faring vessel.

At times, reading Anctil’s book feels like diving into a deep ocean with a powerful flashlight. The flashlight is watertight, to be sure. The ocean, meanwhile, is resplendent with possibilities. We learn, among other things, about technical refinements of the trawling nets of nineteenth-century oceanographic expeditions and about the abyssal animals clinging to submarine telegraph cables. We learn the chemistry of histological dyes used for microscopic anatomy and of the preserving fluids that keep specimens fresh. We observe transparent bodies of gastropod molluscs and dissect their light-producing organs. There are tubular and cup-shaped light-emitting cells, pigment layers and lenses, reflectors and strange forms of deep-sea fishes’ eyes. There is also a description of the cloning of the first firefly light-producing gene. There is even a report of secret research, sponsored by the U.S. Navy.

For all this, Anctil’s book can be monotonous in places, bogged down in ctenophores and cnidarians, echinoderms, and tunicates. When Anctil tips the scale toward the hard science, the narrative becomes labyrinthine and lacklustre. The steady parade of scientific names can be a bit daunting, even for a scientist, and unless you have recently brushed up on the names of invertebrate phyla, you may be in danger of being sunk by its weight. This may seem a minor criticism of the book as a whole, but the real danger, in this reviewer’s opinion, is that too much hard science might prompt less patient readers to move on to more exciting things. Like, say, stingrays. Or sharks. Or anacondas. Often, writing about science is better simplified. You attract more living creatures to your cause that way.

There is, likewise, a missed opportunity on the visual side. A dozen black-and-white photographs are placed within the text, in a manner that recalls the loveliness of Jules Verne’s fiction, and yet, in a book on living creatures that luminesce, this reviewer can’t help but wish to see even a few photographs in colour. (Inspired by Anctil’s writing, I took my nine-year-old daughter to a local library to see photobooks on deep-sea creatures).

A larger criticism of the book is that this sort of comprehensive cataloguing of bioluminescent organisms has been done before (most notably in A History of Luminescence published in 1957 by E. Newton Harvey), and so, here, done again, it feels like an anchor that drags down the progress of our present-day expedition. We want to get to the uncharted waters faster. We yearn to discover new things. We wish, this reviewer included, to find shining new things that we can’t find elsewhere in biology textbooks. In short, we need more good story-telling. Because when Anctil does tell us stories, the writing is fresh, vigorous, and real.

When he recounts, for example, how an eighteenth-century naturalist named René-Antoine Ferchault de Réaumur failed to wash fish flesh off his fingers and observed them lit up afterward with a marvelous glow, or when a child, ­hanging around the port of Le Havre at the end of the nineteenth century, finds an exotic luminous click beetle in the wood cargo of a ship that had travelled to France from the West Indies, the writer’s mind, and the reader’s imagination, collide on the page. Serendipitously, the beetle is bought to a renowned French pharmacologist Raphaël Horace Dubois, who “enlist[s] the manager of the Le Havre laboratory and a horticulturist in Guadeloupe to import hundreds of these beetles for a comprehensive study.” Anctil is at his best when he relates stories like these, and when he gives us behind-the-scenes glimpses of real people in real history doing real science: where they lived, who inspired them, and what drove them to pursue their interests, sometimes to the depths of the seas or to the ends of the Earth. In writing about Raphaël Dubois, for example, Anctil offers us this anecdote:

Dubois had some talent for entrepreneurship, as was demonstrated by his stewardship of the Biological Station of Tamaris-sur-mer, and he also had a flair for showmanship. He put this talent to good use on the occasion of the Exposition universelle of Paris in 1900. In the basement of the Palais de l’Optique he created a dazzling light show for the public by uniformly coating the interior surface of 25-litre glass jars with cultures of luminescent bacteria. Not only was this the first time in history that bioluminescence had been offered to a general audience as entertainment but it was its first appearance as a promotional tool for a potential new technology for lighting up homes. In the wake of this public success, Dubois created smaller “living lamps” along similar lines. Naively, as posterity shows, in extolling the potential of his gadgets, he got carried away by his eloquence.

In such passages, the writing takes air, as if surfacing from the depth of dull scientific facts, and Anctil’s voice floats up on the sheer joy of story-telling.

Perhaps the biggest accomplishment of the book, therefore, is that Anctil fuses the history of bioluminescent research with a human background. Yes, this book is about the science of light production in living organisms. But, to Anctil’s credit, it is just as much about how real science is done: the circuitous path of science, the dogged work and slow progress, the obsessive curiosity of men and women that keeps it all going. In effect, then, the book is a survey course on the gradual human enlightenment in the field, and in that it succeeds brilliantly. Its rich, variegated material will surely be dredged up and mined for shimmering treasures not only by future generations of scientists, but also by artists and writers, who, if they brave the science and stay with this book, may be similarly rewarded.

Immersed in a chapter titled “A deeper probing of nature aglow,” the reader can, for instance, imagine herself standing on the deck of a steamer ship, somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, carefully bringing up an exquisitely designed underwater apparatus full of luminescent angler fish, before taking the specimens into a dark laboratory, where she observes and records the greenish fluorescent gleam through the night. In moments like this, the book almost permits a kind of time travel.