Explorer Moment of the Week: Secret Light

Picture of David Gruber studying corals
Photograph by Jim Hellemn

 

While exploring the Bloody Bay Wall off Little Cayman Island in 2012 to chronicle its biofluorescent creatures, marine biologist David Gruber felt the strange sensation of stepping into his backyard and beholding an unknown and surprising universe.

 

"Just a few hours after this photo was taken, darkness fell and I descended down the sheer face of the coral wall, along with teammates Jim Hellemn and John Sparks. The wall drops 1,000 feet, but we hovered at just 90, capturing the large biofluorescent mural that now appears in the traveling exhibit ‘Creatures of Light.’ On that evening, we unwittingly photographed many cryptic biofluorescent animals whose secret light had never before been glimpsed by human eyes.

 

Fluorescent proteins from marine species have already provided science with one of its most valuable tools for illuminating processes in living cells and neurons. So when it was announced that President Obama’s administration is planning to launch a decade-long initiative to map the human brain, I was inspired by new possibilities. Just as biofluorescence plays many roles for corals and fishes in their dim, blue-lit world, it may also come to play a greater role in understanding how our own brain cells communicate.

 

For example, as a thought pops into my head, my neurons fire (a process illuminated to science by biofluorescent tags decoded from the DNA of marine organisms). I imagine a role reversal: a pair of Warteye stargazers (Gillellus uranidea) exploring Greenwich Village with special lights and cameras, trying to discover how we communicate so as to better understand themselves. This planet is full of unsuspected biological connections and we are just beginning to explore the bioluminescent and biofluorescent universe under the sea.”

 



—David Gruber, National Geographic Society/Waitt Grantee

 

Explore Photo Galleries

  • cranberry-picking-smoking-945.jpg

    Explore: Cranberries

    Celebrate the turkey’s spunky sidekick.

     

     

  • Picture of four circus clowns goofing around, 1931

    From the Stacks: Circus Portraits, 1931

    The October 1931 issue of National Geographic explores the whimsical world of the traveling circus.

  • 09-NationalGeographic_428801.jpg

    Explore: Fashion

    For 125 years, National Geographic has had a front-row seat at the global runway, documenting everything from sparklers to swimsuits.

  • 01-rugby-pile.jpg

    Explore: Sports

    Entertainment is becoming less physical and more virtual. Yet we still play physical games.

  • 09-baghdad-motorcycle.jpg

    Explore: Transit

    See how transportation has changed over 125 years.

  • 11-hawaii-lava.jpg

    Explore: Heat

    See some of the most extreme examples of the effects of heat on our planet.

  • A close view of ice and snow.

    Explore: Cold

    Humans have found ways to adapt to—and even enjoy—extreme temperatures.

Shop

Shop Now »

More Explorer Moments

  • Picture of Sandra Postel and colleagues

    Sandra Postel

    Do we have the ability to restore the Colorado River?

  • Picture of Jay Simpson's walking companion in South Africa

    Jay Simpson

    An erratic, spontaneous hike takes a young explorer by surprise.

  • Ken Banks, a National Geographic Emerging Explorer National Geographic Traveler Magazine

    Ken Banks

    What does it take to become an innovator?

  • Picture of Agustin Fuentes

    Agustin Fuentes

    Have you ever wondered what monkeys do when we're not around?