Glowing Squid

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Margaret McFall-Ngai Lectures on Bioluminescence in Hawaiian Squids

Bobtail squid still courtesy of liquidguru on Vimeo

CAMBRIDGE – The Harvard Museum of Natural History sponsored yet another engaging speaker, Margaret McFall-Ngai, as a part of the annual Cambridge Science Festival.

McFall-Ngai is a professor and director at the Pacific Biosciences Research Center at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa and has spent much of her career studying bioluminescence in animals.

This talk focused primarily on the “very cute and charismatic” Hawaiian bobtail squid.

Unfortunately, you won’t find any tiny bioluminescent squids in local Boston waters – you would have to travel to the Hawaiian island Oahu.

Euprymna scolopes, the scientific name for the squid, is barely bigger than a couple centimeters and has earned the nickname “dumpling squid.”

This small squid has luminous bacteria called vibrio fischeri.

What does this animal do with the light that it produces with these bacteria? If it didn’t have luminescence it would cast a shadow onto the sand below it, the bacteria allow for counterillumination which protects the squid from being seen by predators.

“It’s like a Klingon cloaking device,” McFall-Ngai joked.

McFall-Ngai discussed the symbiotic system of the squid and how the bacteria and the squid create their mutually beneficial symbiotic relationship as well as how using animal models, specifically the bobtail squid, can aid in the study of complex characters.

Through 30 years of studying these creatures she found two different strains of the luminous bacteria that can exist in the bobtail squids, and that despite the fact there is a more dominant strain, both are able to thrive.

The light that these bacteria produce are crucial to the existence of these squids, and these squids are crucial to the existence of these bacteria.

McFall-Ngai answered a handful of questions after her presentation for those eager to learn more.

Roberto Kolter is a co-director of Harvard University’s Microbial Science Initiative and works within the Department of Microbiology at Harvard University.

“If I had to ask her what she’s most proud of, and maybe I’m being presumptuous, it’s her passion for changing the way we educate people about the life sciences,” Kolter said.

“I believe we will look back in a decade and ask who revolutionized the way we study and integrate the study of life sciences,” he continued, “and I think we’re going to point at Margaret.”

This spring semester at Harvard, the Evolution Matters series has been focusing on the microbial world in part with the temporary exhibit ‘Microbial Life’ that opened this past February and will be on display in the Harvard Museum of Natural History until September 2019.

Video credit: liquidguru on Vimeo