Worm’s Mysterious Blue Slime Decoded?

A full-body fluorescence image of the parchment tube worm. Photograph courtesy Dimitri Deheyn, Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego.

Shooting out glowing blue slime is a pretty cool superpower.

Parchment tube worms—a common marine animal—have this ability, and Dimitri Deheyn of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego is one of the researchers asking how they do it.

The worm itself has a fluorescent green glow when seen under black light, but its bioluminescent glow is blue. If you’re diving and touch the animal, it will produce its blue mucus, said Deheyn. The blue slime is rare in that its light lingers rather than flickering out like the quick glint of a firefly.

The process by which Chaetopterus variopedatus emits that light is quite unique as well. In a recent study, researchers from Scripps and Connecticut College in New London found that riboflavin—also known as vitamin B2—was one component in the light emission. Bioluminescent animals usually employ bacteria to give off their eerie glow, but that wasn’t the case with the parchment tube worm.

Other things that produce a lingering luminescence—like bacteria and fungus—need oxygen to keep the lights on. But in the parchment tube worm’s case, “you can remove the oxygen and the light will stay,” said Deheyn.

“What we are working on right now is to describe the biochemistry of this new light-producing reaction in the worm,” he added. It could have numerous potential applications for biomedical and other types of research.

Changing Planet

Liz Langley is the award-winning author of Crazy Little Thing: Why Love and Sex Drive Us Mad and has written for many publications including Salon, Details and the Huffington Post. Follow her on Twitter @LizLangley and at www.lizlangley.com