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Glowing corals

Hands-on at the exhibit

  • Use our blue LED torches and special filter goggles in a dark room and explore the fluorescence of corals, anemones and bio-engineered bacteria that produce glowing coral pigments.
  • Learn about the value of fluorescence for habitat mapping by having a go at our game to spot and mark coral recruits in daylight and under fluorescence conditions
  • Apply fluorescent face paint and explore what happens in our dark fluorescence room. Take a photo of yourself on our reef and send it to your friends!

Find out more

Researchers rely on techniques in the lab to help us understand how diseases such as cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and HIV affect how cells function within our bodies. But it is difficult to look inside living cells, and even more difficult to follow cellular building blocks such as proteins within cells. 

Scientists are using fluorescent molecules from jellyfish, sea anemones, corals and other marine creatures to analyse the molecular mechanisms underlying diseases, and these molecules have already enabled them to make important discoveries. These fluorescent pigments glow green, yellow or red under blue light, giving many reef corals their colourful appearance. When scientists attach them to proteins they want to study, they light up living cells so they can be seen under a microscope. It’s like putting a high-vis coat on the body’s building blocks and being able to see them in the dark! 

Almost a quarter of all marine species depend on coral reefs, so new fluorescent proteins, potential drugs and other compounds useful for biomedical research could be hidden in this ecosystem. For example, scientists need new fluorescent proteins, particularly those glowing at the far-red end of the light spectrum which are easier to detect than green fluorescent proteins in tissue made up of many cell layers. In our research, we are screening the reefs for new molecules. We are also working out what the fluorescent pigments in the corals do - we want to understand when and why they change their colour. 

We are doing this to monitor coral health in the reef - this is important because reef survival is threatened by climate change and human activity. Reef organisms can provide us with potential life-saving tools and products, so we need to act now and protect this pharmaceutical treasure chest!

Find out more about coral reefs.

Presented by: University of Southampton and Tropical Marine Centre London.