Will the real jellyfish please stand up?

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Sandra Porter

When does a little artistic license go a little too far?

i-b1e041868f26a9b705c4fa3f58d6a63f-jellyfish_green.jpgWe don't always expect the truth in science journalism imagery. We've all seen the newspaper pictures of the famous scientist wearing a lab coat and gazing intently at a gel, looking through a microscope, or contemplating an agar plate streaked with lovely colonies of bacteria. Some of us find these pictures pretty funny, especially if we know that the subject of the photo hasn't run a gel in the past twenty years and never wears a lab coat unless they have to give a lecture to medical students.

Okay, perhaps the glossified, digitally enhanced, sciency image does go a bit over the top, but where's the harm? Is there any harm?

Context is important
It's common knowledge (among biologists, at least) that the brightly-stained cells on the cover of BioTechniques are not really that color. We know that they only appear to be a fluorescent green or red color because they've been stained and viewed with a special microscope. We also know that marketing literature takes a few liberties, and that only a few primates pay attention to the details. I might as well confess, too. I've played around with making brightly colored images of computer-derived molecular models and even put them on coffee mugs and magnets, but not with the expectation that anyone would really believe that molecules were that color.

But what if the subject were an animal, say a jellyfish, and the picture wasn't just published in a popular magazine, or advertisement, but in a scientific publication? Or say, perhaps the picture is packaged with educational materials? Is there a problem then?

I stumbled onto a website about bioluminescence in Aequorea victoria that describes in detail, some of the harm that can result from scientific imagery gone wrong.

To paraphrase the author:

One of the first false-colorized images appeared on the August 1995 cover of TRENDS IN GENETICS. Since then the myth of glowing jellyfish has spread far and wide.

Apparently these pictures fool science journalists, too:

In another article about jellyfish GFP, SCIENCE NEWS (July 26, 1997), on bad advice from an unknown scientist, published a reflected-light, blue-tinted image of the medusa Aurelia, captioned as the "The Pacific Northwest jellyfish, Aequorea victoria, glows bright with GFP, an intriguing fluorescent protein".


In the opening words of the article, the author further used the phrase "glowing with a cool inner light" to describe luminescent jellyfish. In fact, they do not glow. Not only was this reflected-light photograph not an image of either fluorescence or luminescence, but it was a photograph of Aurelia, a species that is not bioluminescent.

In the December 1999 print version of BioProbes 32, a subcatalogue produced by Molecular Probes, p. 10 features a most-bizarre "enhanced" photograph of Aequorea (fortunately not one of my shots), with brilliant and shamelessly lime-green tinted radial canals, whose caption reads "The luminescent jellyfish Aequorea victoria. Image from GFP in Motion, CD-ROM supplement to Trends in Cell Biology, B. Ludin and A. Matos, Eds., Elsevier Science, 1999. Used with Permission."

This blooper is all the more surprising since Elsevier's Trends in Genetics had already done about the same thing in 1995 with one of my photos and had to apologize in print for it (see above). Apparently the lime-green Aequorea was also on the COVER of the Trends in Cell Biology CD-ROM!

All of the references listed above and most of the other references that Mills describes at the web site are at least six years old, so we might think that the myth of the glowing jellyfish is dying out. Not so.

Perpetuating the myth

Unfortunately, the myths and misleading images are now being propagated through science education efforts. See for yourself.

Imagine you're a student or a teacher, working with a jellyfish protein, called "Green Fluorescent Protein," and you see a poster of a fluorescent green jellyfish, from a company selling education kits. What do you think the jellyfish really looks like?

Would you think that this animal really glows? or would you think Photoshop®?

i-c8cf93059dc3818aa3edb2cbbf7b299f-jellyfish_no_glow.jpg Just to keep the record a little bit clear, I colorized the picture at the top of this post (and labeled it accordingly). Here's the real picture of a jellyfish. If it appears to glow at all, the glowing comes from reflected light and not bioluminescence.

A little bit of artwork might have made for a lovely picture but it's led to an unfortunate myth. Maybe scientific accuracy in images isn't such a bad thing to ask for, at least in science journalism and science ed.

Mills, C.E. 1999-present. Bioluminescence of Aequorea, a hydromedusa. Electronic internet document available at http://faculty.washington.edu/cemills/Aequorea.html. Published by the author, web page established June 1999, last updated July 2006.