Research Stories – Fluorescent Molluscs

Manchester Museum is proud to be part of Manchester University; we are the UK’s largest university museum and we encourage access to collections for scientific research. Today we shine a light on just one example involving some fascinating science and molluscs from all over the world.
Manchester Museum has a very large collection of molluscs, roughly 750,000 shells (although we haven’t counted them all!). This huge biodiversity gives scientists the opportunity to study different species from all over the world from the comfort of the Manchester Museum stores.

A drawer of mollusc specimens from the Manchester Museum Zoology Collections.
© Manchester Museum, The University of Manchester

Last year Tom Pettini a scientist from the University of Manchester, spent lots of time in the dark looking at molluscs in the zoology stores. Darkness was necessary because he was investigating fluorescence in nature. Fluorescence is a special property of being able to absorb light, and then emit light at a longer wavelength producing a different colour that we can see.
Naturally occurring fluorescence is quite common, and has been found in certain rocks and minerals, in plants, fungi, bacteria and animals. A new study using museum specimens recently discovered even platypus can do it!

A male platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus) museum specimen photographed under visible light ultraviolet (UV) light.
© Anich et al., Mammalia, 2020

Why are scientists interested in fluorescent animals?

Fluorescence is a very useful tool for research in biology, because it allows us to tag and highlight specific microscopic molecules or structures in the body that would otherwise be invisible. Naturally fluorescent molecules can be used to better understand diseases such as heart disease, malaria and cancer, to name a few.
Many of the fluorescent molecules used in biology research today were first identified in nature. One of the first and still widely used fluorescent molecules to be used in this way is called Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP), first identified and extracted from a jellyfish.

Glowing jellyfish
© Getty Images/iStockphoto
More examples of naturally occurring fluorescence.
© Tom Pettini, The University of Manchester.

After many hours in the dark looking at shells with a special UV torch, Tom discovered some of the Manchester Museum specimens did glow many different colours!

Molluscs from the Manchester museum collection, emitting different colours of light when exposed to UV light.
© Tom Pettini, The University of Manchester

This collections based research will help to identify new sources of fluorescence from nature. This is really useful to scientists as having different coloured fluorescent molecules available allows them to mark and observe more than one molecule at a time. The future discovery of brighter fluorescent molecules could be used to highlight and observe even smaller microscopic structures in detail.

Fluorescent markers used to highlight different structures in a Drosophila fly wing disc.
© Tom Pettini, The University of Manchester

There could be a treasure trove of fluorescence waiting to be found within the vast museum collections. Hopefully, this valuable work can continue in the near future.


Further reading

Anich, P.S., Anthony, S., Carlson, M., Gunnelson, A., Kohler, A.M., Martin, J.G. and Olson, E.R., 2020. Biofluorescence in the platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus). Mammalia, 1(ahead-of-print).

Calvo, L., Ronshaugen, M., Pettini, T., 2019. smiFISH and embryo segmentation for single-cell multi-gene RNA quantification in arthropods. bioRxiv doi: https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.02.29.971390

Murdock, A., 2020. How glow-in-the-dark jellyfish inspired a scientific revolution. University of California. [Online] [Accessed on 13th November 2020] https://www.universityofcalifornia.edu/news/how-basic-research-jellyfish-led-unexpected-scientific-revolution

Sanderson, K., 2009. Green glow deciphered. Nature [Online] [Accessed on 13th November 2020] https://www.nature.com/news/2009/090425/full/news.2009.401.html

Zimmer, M., 2015. Illuminating Disease: An Introduction to Green Fluorescent Proteins. Oxford University Press.

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