Bioluminescence: Nature’s Tool in a Pollution Solution

by Angie Tarantino

The Indian River Lagoon in Florida is considered the most ecologically diverse estuary in the nation, and unfortunately it is under threat from pollution resulting from commercial and residential development.

The Lagoon is made up from a shallow body of water that is surrounded by barrier beaches and is closed off from the Atlantic Ocean. This waterway was once a happy thriving eco system to thousands of species encompassed with white sandy beaches, colorful sea grass, and an abundance of wildlife.

Polluted Coastal Waters

Sadly, the state of the coastal waters today is a disturbing one. It is now becoming overly saturated with slimy toxins, black mucky bottoms, and is highly infested with dangerous pollutants.

Pollutants like fertilizers, pesticides, heavy metals, and petroleum-based products are carried off lawns and streets into our coastal waters with every rainstorm. This has only further added to environmental issues that have plagued the earth.


Edith Widder is a marine biologist who grew up near the The Indian River Lagoon. She has spent most of her career studying the phenomenon of bioluminescence. She is one of the few people that has experienced the amazing light show that our ocean friends create. In her ocean floor deep-sea dive, she explains that within the pitch black darkness of the ocean floor lies an almost out of this world light display created by the communication of sea creatures and organisms.

Nearly 90% of ocean life uses this bioluminescense to communicate danger, attract mates, etc. Amongst this examination of light language she is able to apply a new innovative approach to helping life underneath waters. She feels that understanding this spectacle is critical in understanding life in the ocean and uses it as a tool to help track pollution.

How Bioluminescence Aids in Pollution Revelations

Bioluminescent bacteria mixed with the sediment from the lagoon floor can give almost an immediate reading of how polluted the sediment is. Toxic sediments inhibit luminescence, while non-toxic sediment will allow the bacteria to glow brightly. Edith has literally found a way to make the invisible visible. This is an inexpensive and effective way to distinguish exactly how polluted our waterways are.

In the past collecting water samples to determine levels of pollutant have not been as effective as collecting sediment samples. Water is considered to be transient while the sediment (mud) is what actually accumulates the pollutants, thus making it more persistent.

She also uses a set of sensors to trace the source of the pollution. This essentially figures out where the “hot spots” are located. With these hot spots they can reveal what types of pollutants are present like phosphates and nitrates and can ultimately reveal what the causes are.

Once they have discovered and tracked where the pollution source is they can then measure which pollution reduction methods really work and which ones are a waste of time and money. She takes all this data and information and informs policy makers and agencies in hopes that they can make better decisions on how to manage and sustain this precious waterway.

Local Education and Action

Local organizations have been trying to bring these issues to light by referencing data to policy makers and governments. So far they have been successful in creating a fertilizer ordinance in one of the surrounding counties of the The Indian River Lagoon in which the public will be educated on how to reduce the amount of toxic runoff from their homes and lawns.

Over-fertilization is a big culprit in the increase in dolphin deaths that have been occurring every year in the lagoon. Toxic green slime is virtually created by too much fertilizer. Lawns in the surrounding residential areas were found to be over-fertilized by 500% prior to the ordinance. By residents wanting to keep their lawns nice, bright, and green they were inadvertently adding to the pollutant cocktail of the Indian River Lagoon.

The importance of education is instrumental in protecting what scientists have said is the most precious and threatened estuary in North America. We depend on the oceans and water for survival; the ocean is part of the complex life support system that sustains all life on earth. Protecting the ocean and water ways is about protecting ourselves. We can all do our part to help educate and act on ways to protect our ecosystems and marine life in hopes of a greener and bluer earth.

Angie Tarantino is a contributor and part founder of The Environmental Blog. She covers animal rights, green tips and general green news topics. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area in California.

Image by Meepfly via Creative Commons.

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