Let There Be Light at Every Human’s Creation?

Sadly, no. But biologists have new ways to reveal the unseen. /

Biologists love to make things glow in the dark. And why shouldn’t they? Who hasn’t been mesmerized by fireflies winking in and out of the night, the fleeting streak of a shooting star, or the unspooling of a movie in a darkened cinema? A light in the dark is very comforting. But for biologists, making things glow is essential.

The latest achievement in this area has been widely circulated in a video of a human egg. The video is typically publicized as capturing the “actual” spark of light that occurs at the moment of human conception, but that isn’t really the whole story.

Without help from biologists, the materials of biology—such as the moment of conception—are largely inaccessible to the eye. Historically, microscopes have aided scientists by making individual cells big enough to see. But much of what goes on inside these cells remains too small or doesn’t interact with light in a way we can perceive. Fortunately, biologists have developed a host of clever tricks for making the invisible visible.

Stains and dyes were some of the earliest tools for revealing the unseen. Just about anyone who has been in a molecular biology lab has likely used ethidium bromide for example. It’s a chemical that fits in between the “ladder rung” base pairs of DNA. It also glows in the presence of ultraviolet (UV) light. These two properties make it perfect for detecting the presence of otherwise invisible DNA. Stains are also invaluable diagnostic tools, which help biologists identify different kinds of bacteria and other microscopic pathogens.

More recently, biologists have gotten help from fireflies and jellyfish. Fireflies glow because of a protein named luciferase and a chemical ...

Follow The Behemoth on Twitter and Facebook.

Also in this Issue

Issue 49 / May 26, 2016
  1. Editor's Note from May 26, 2016

    Issue 49: The spark of human creation, beauty’s golden number, and beholding the bison. /

  2. Beauty Has a Number

    Phi, the “Golden Ratio,” seems to be everywhere you look. /

  3. Reckoning with the Buffalo

    The American bison’s fragile wildness. /

  4. A Subsequent Lecture

    “You’ll be surprised” /

  5. Wonder on the Web

    Issue 49: Links to amazing stuff.

Issue Archives