Magazine article Science News

Reflective Protein Causes Squid to Shimmer

Magazine article Science News

Reflective Protein Causes Squid to Shimmer

Article excerpt

As the Hawaiian bobtail squid glides through the ocean on moonlit nights, when darkness alone wouldn't cloak it, reflective materials in its tissues render the animal invisible. Biologists have long known that squid and other cephalopods such as octopuses manipulate light in this way. "But nobody could figure out what the agent was that was helping these animals become reflective," says Wendy Crookes at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

Now, she and her colleagues have uncovered the squid's secret. Embedded in the animal's reflective tissues is a unique set of proteins that the researchers call reflectins.

In earlier studies, scientists led by Margaret McFall-Ngai at the same University of Hawaii lab showed that bobtail squid generate light using a bioluminescent organ on their undersides (SN: 9/14/96, p. 167). The organ houses a population of bacteria that glow in response to changes in oxygen concentrations in the squid. Inside cells around the organ--as well as in the skin, in the ink sac, and around the eyes--are reflective, iridescent structures that resemble stacks of coins. Called platelets, these structures reflect the bacterial light.

In shallow waters, moonlight can cast a shadow of the squid onto the seafloor. This shadow would expose the animal to predators, says Crookes. To avoid having a shadow, the squid produces its own light, she says. The reflective platelets focus the light downward and modulate it to match the intensity of the moonlight hitting the ground. …

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