Bioluminescent Robots Use Plankton To Glow in the Dark

Scientists created a soft robot filled with algae that sparkles, and they plan to use it to explore the dark depths of the ocean. The bioluminescent plankton, called a dinoflagellate, glows bright turquoise when disturbed. When something squishes, stretches, twists, or bends the elastic container, it glows in the dark. This means a soft bioluminescent robot with no electronics could light the way to new undersea discoveries.

Scientists at the University of California, San Diego published the research in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Communications. According to a press release, experts from Scripps Institution of Oceanography and Jacobs School of Engineering teamed up for the project. They created soft devices in a variety of shapes, pictured below. They also experimented with colored dyes to create other light sources for the robots besides the natural turquoise of the bioluminescent algae.  

A selection of soft devices that can be filled with bioluminescent plankton that glows

When seen during the day, dinoflagellates make the ocean look a deep red color, leading to the term red tides. When they are agitated by waves, or scientists flicking them, they light up. Some of the robots include magnets, which can be manipulated to stimulate the algae into action. The scientists also used puffs of air to make them glow. All of these mechanisms could provide bioluminescent light for soft robotics exploring the depths of the deep sea, removing the need for electronics and batteries.

Some red tides are toxic, but the plankton in this study isn’t. There are other marine critters that glow in the dark, like the kitefin shark. Others, like dolphins, look like they glow but are actually disturbing dinoflagellates and making them light up. Either way, bioluminescence is one of the most beautiful sights to behold. And could be harnessed to discover even more amazing things about the ocean. We’d love to see one of these robots in action under the sea, glowin softly with bioluminescent light.

Featured Image: JacobsSchoolNews

Melissa is Nerdist’s science & technology staff writer. She also moderates “science of” panels at conventions and co-hosts Star Warsologies, a podcast about science and Star Wars. Follow her on Twitter @melissatruth. 

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