Introduction: Grow Your Own Bioluminescent Algae

Picture of Grow Your Own Bioluminescent Algae
You may have memories of running after fireflies with hands outstretched on a warm summer evening. You may have even watched some discovery channel documentary on the mysteries of the deep sea and marveled at those 'glowing' organisms featured. Chances are however, you probably haven't heard too much about the plethora of other bioluminescent creatures inhabiting this planet.

Bioluminescence (literally meaning living light) occurs within many living organisms, although, most are relegated to the deep sea. This chemical reaction involves the oxidation of Luciferin (just a name for a class of biological light emitting pigments). While related, the name doesn't come from any devilish origins, but rather the latin 'lucifer' meaning "light bringer".

Depending on the organism, the light can be used for camouflage, attraction, or even communication among bacteria to name a few. Some of the more notable organisms that bioluminesce include fireflies, glow worms, bacteria, a plethora of marine life, and even mushrooms. (Here's a favorite video of mine from planet earth on the glow worm

Today however, we'll focus on a particular light emitting alga known as Pyrocystis fusiformis. These dinoflagellates typically do not occur in high enough concentrations among marine algae to produce a very noticeable glow. However, when the conditions are right (excess nutrients, enough sun, etc) an algal bloom can occur and populations explode.  Chances are you've heard of this phenomenon before which (albeit not involving this particular organism) is also known as a Red Tide.

Here's a video of one such concentration in a bay in australia. They are simply throwing water into the bay as the algae only luminesce when disturbed. A popular theory is that the light is used to attract predators of the grazers of dinoflagellates.  Case et al. (1995) demonstrated that the feeding rate of squid of mysids in the dark increases significantly when bioluminescent dinoflagellates are present.

There is even a bay in Puerto Rico full of the stuff which people can kayak in.

With a little luck and a LOT of patience, you can grow your own bioluminscent algae at home.

Step 1: Gather the Materials

Picture of Gather the Materials

A number of marine enthusiasts already grow phytoplankton at home for use in feeding various species of marine life. The method we'll use is rather similar.

To start, you need,

-A clear growing container (shallow containers with lots of surface area work best)
-Sea Salt
-A grow light and timer
-Micro Algae Grow
-A Starter Culture

Sea Salt: No, not from your pantry you gourmet fiend, you can get this at most pet or aquarium stores.

Grow Light: you can pick up a plant fluorescent and rack from walmart for ~$10.... Make sure you have a light timer.

Micro Algae grow: our most crucial ingredient. (besides the actual algae) There are a number of nutrient formulas people have experimented with, and truthfully, I've only had mixed results with this one. Experiment with what works best. 

A Starter Culture: These can be obtained from a few places online. I recommend

Step 2: Preparation and Mixing

Picture of Preparation and Mixing

Sanitation is necessary so your batch doesn't crash. After you REALLY wash out the grow container, make sure there is absolutely no residue left. Some people say swirl some diluted bleach around. Others say to stick it in the microwave after it's completely dry (won't melt or deform if it's dry... wet is another story). Choose your preference.

Additionally, sanitize the tubing if you're using an air pump, and anything else you're using to prepare this batch.

Mix up a batch of salt water. Use purified water as tap water can contain chlorine or other things that might kill your batch.

  Mix the salt to a 1.019 specific gravity (sg) concentration. Directions on how to do this are on the back of the package... you'll need a hydrometer if you've never done it before.

Add in ~ 1 ml of the micro algae grow. In this case, less is more. The solution you received the culture in should already have enough nutrients to support sizable growth. If you don't want to mess with making your own solution (not necessarily a bad idea) many places that sell starter cultures will also sell culture solution.

Let both the solution and culture bag sit in the same area out of the sun for an hour or two. This is simply to let them reach room temperature. A sudden change in temp during transfer could shock the culture enough to significantly harm it. If your room temp is in the 70s (F) , you should be okay. Ideally, the water should be around 22 degrees Celsius.

Finally, transfer the algae into your bottles. Attached is a picture of a grower's setup. (Your bottles won't be green though)

Step 3: Growth

Picture of Growth

These dinoflagellates need a constant cycle of light and darkness for optimal growth. Put your grow light and bottles in a dark place (closet) where you can strictly control how much light they get. Set the timer so the grow light is on a cycle of 12 hours on, 12 hours off. Don't be worried if your starter culture doesn't emit light right after you receive it. They will only bioluminesce in their night cycle, so plan the light cycles accordingly for when you want to see it.

Monitor your cultures for any sudden changes in color, and give them a gentle shake every day or so or all the sediment will collect to the bottom. If you have a successful culture, you will eventually need to 'split' the batch. Mix up another batch of saltwater/nutrients, and halve your culture between the new bottles.

Remember, these cool creatures will only brightly flash when disturbed and only during their night cycle. Too much disturbance can both harm them,and wear them out. They have a 'recharge' time so to speak between disturbances for optimal performance.

If you're looking for something which will constantly glow, you might want to check out bioluminescent bacteria instead. You can get some from Carolina Biological supply. Culturing this is a rather different process, but you can find some guides on the net. One bioluminescent strain is Vibrio fischeri.
The pictures on this page are not mine and are mostly from this site:

Good luck and have fun!


KaraWellan (author)2016-03-01


Why we can't use a kitchen salt ?

What's the difference between kitchen salt and pet salt ?

(Sorry if I repost but, my comment has disapear)

what do you think?!?

DamithaN (author)2017-05-21

What if I dump the algae in the swamp? Will it grow in the swamp?


moonriseatsunset (author)2017-10-17
never mind, i think my comment disappeared, but good idea;KasaronFlag: I wonder if anyone has ever had the idea of putting this in a pool...
komodoboyx5 : im gunna do that. no doubt.
IX Smith XI: That would be the best prank ever. Just think what you can do with it, see if they took a shower.
evix: Sneak and put some inside their shower head...
.God.: And it only lights up when disturbed. Imagine a friend's reaction when the pool begins to glow when they jump in it.
me:mwahahahaha! thank you for the idea!hehehe...
moonriseatsunset (author)2017-10-17

is anyone else on this currently?(6:50 PM 10/17/2017) i have a question that i need answered for science.

KaraWellan (author)2016-03-01

Sea Salt: No, not from your pantry you gourmet fiend, you can get this at most pet or aquarium stores.


Hello, why we can't use a salt from our pantry ??? What's the difference between a kitchen salt and a pets salt ?

Thank you, bye.

carlita12 (author)2016-01-14

Bioluminescence is a form of chemiluminescence where light energy is released by a chemical reaction. Fireflies, anglerfish, and other organisms produce the light-emitting pigment luciferin and the enzyme luciferase. Luciferin reacts with oxygen to create light

James3DS (author)2015-11-05

I didnt know this was doable, great thanks!

NavamiJ (author)2014-11-16

Hi, can the bioluminescence be measured using a regular photmeter? If so, what is the best method to measure their light output?


JonN4 (author)NavamiJ2015-10-22

You would need a PAR meter to check light output but it is very low in small concentrations

spark master (author)2015-09-28

And if you get really tired of this , is dumping down the drain a bad adding unknown stuff to the local wet lands. Just a question of safety here.

JonN4 (author)spark master2015-10-22

Most likely not. Due to the salinity and special conditions if you dump them in the toilet they will most likely die on their way to the ocean. I have been breeding Pyrocystis fusiformis for quite some time as I own a aquaculturing facility. They need certain conditions or will quickly die and also the more you disturb the one batch they will slowly die so you will need to keep growing them for adequeate population growth.

spark master (author)JonN42015-10-22

While I understand most likely not.... that is not a guarantee. I live on LI there are so many polluted ponds/lakes from idiots who dumped their fisjhies they got tired of into the em, the spores/seeds?, of the aquarium plants are ruining everything.

then there are the carp, not diem, or rather they most certainly do.

it is rather cool though, even I a court appointed curmudgeon will agree

JonN4 (author)spark master2015-10-22

These are different than algae. They are basically diatoms and these species live in certain conditions. Salinity and organics need to be on point so I doubt any would survive if tossed. Yes we have dummies who like to dump fish and algae into the water system that can cause probelms but since most of these species of bioluminescence algae is tropical highly unlikely they wil survuve without proper conditions.

JonN4 (author)JonN42015-10-22

Technically they are dinoflagellates some species result in what we call red tides or massive deadly algae blooms. The species of Pyrocystis is not harmful.

cbafed (author)2015-09-29

is there a cheaper place to buy the algae then Empco?

sidsayed (author)2015-09-27

Wow! This is a great instructable. We don't get any of the things you mentioned, but it's a pleasure to have come across this. Thanks.

superguy911 (author)2015-09-27

Considering i live in Puerto Rico ive been to a lake full of that kind of algae, i well definetly give this project a go when i have the time.

DavidM137 (author)2015-09-27

Will have to try it out!!!

Laral (author)2015-09-27

This looks great but sounds kind of tricky to grow.

J.W.N.R. (author)2012-03-04

Won't the algae culture be stressed to death by the movement, if an air pump is installed in their container.

agreenspan (author)J.W.N.R.2014-08-24

I would like to know this as well.

amsisi13 (author)2014-05-18

Hello, I was wondering if it would be at all possible to grow this outside? Thank you!

ojulian1 (author)2014-02-04

I would like to try glow habitat w planctin in like fish tank above that perferated PVC w luminescent fungi alga small trees glow worms maybe florescent fish or two. A whole greenhouse eco glow habit. I found company working on bioluminescent plants for home green lighting. Maybe a frog that is glow too. Do u think all could live in same inviroment

mrg02d (author)2013-10-29

I ordered from empco and got a bottle of "dead" algae. I only get about one or two cells flashing at a time at night. Can these live cells repopulate the bottle? Empco customer service is a complete joke....Rarely answer emails and only give vague responses when they do. Any help?

mschoor (author)mrg02d2013-12-28


mschoor (author)mschoor2013-12-28

hello, They should continue to grow if given proper light cycle and temp. If not check out algabiotic research technologies on ebay or lots of strains with great prices and nice people

Mariska Botha (author)2013-09-04

That looks so amazing and fun

BunnyRoger (author)2013-09-03

Love the blue, looks so so creapy actually.

Amanda Culbert (author)2013-09-02

Very cool!!

MAApleton (author)2013-08-29

Super cool idea. Thanks, another one for my favorites list.

mindyindyindy (author)2013-02-28

How much light does the algae really need? I'd love to grow some but I don't have a place to keep them that I would consider more than "low light" and a lamp isn't really an option.

kcamilleri (author)2012-12-09

HI i need to buy the micro algae grow to try this experiment for a school assignment and when i tried to access this site: it isn't opening an error is coming up. I would highly appreciate it if you could give me an alternative of from where to buy it. Thanks a lot

thecrazymagnetman (author)2012-06-14

i know one word to describe it, CREEPY

puerto-rico-rolf (author)2010-11-14

this algae is really awesome but unfortunately it refuses to grow! :-(

i ordered some pyrocystis fusiformis from empco and tried to make my own growth medium. i emptied fresh bottles of mineral water, filled them with destilled water and added sea salt until it reached a density of ca. 1025 kg/m3 (at 25°C). finally i added some nutritions. they are not the same as in the article since i had to buy them in germany, but they are f/2 as well.

unfortunately, in my mixed media, the algae dies within a single day! now, the empco starter culture is nearly empty and i really need some good ideas about what is going wrong.

could a lack of co2 let them die that fast? the starter culture is living for a month now in it's bottle without air pump and everything. what about salinity? it's not that sensible, is it? or maybe ph? is destilled water a good choice?

any ideas whats going wrong?!?
thanks a lot!

Now I got a new batch of algae from Empco and it's working fine so far! :-)

I changed a few things in the protocol: First, I used "Micro Algae Grow" this time.

Second, and I think this is important, I started each experiment with a small portion of algae and added only a little bit of growth medium every few hours. This is to avoid osmosis through a a sudden change in salt levels. This might have been the problem last time.

How much algae did you add to what quantity of water and how long did it take after diluting the algae for it to reach the same brightness?

The amount of algae was dependent on how much I had. Could be everything between a few tablespoons and half a bottle. And then I started adding water (with nutritions), but only the tenth part or something (sometimes only a few drops). Then gradually more. When I can be sure that both levels of salt are similar I put in a lot of water (like same amount as the algae itself).

I have the impression that my algae is growing pretty slow. It can takes weeks until it reaches the same density as before.

For one I agree with kholland, and remember its not the replication of the organisms environment that matters in these kind of experiments. What you are trying to achieve is growth of a species, so you want to achieve perfect conditions for growth, i.e. the perfect environment, not their usual one. So hell make a CO2 generator and make sure you use that algae grow! I'll be trying to grow the same species in a month or two so that's what I'll be doing as I've perfected growing freshwater algae with the method above.
Hope I helped,

Long reply time, but the problem is your salt... you want 35ppt... I.e. 35 grams of salt for every liter of water.

I realize 1025 kg/m3 is the density of sea water, but, I think you will get better results measuring that way rather then doing it based on density....

Additionally, I wouldn't use distilled water, ideally, I would just get fresh water from a source (nearby streams, which will already have some salt) and then add salt to 35ppt.

boost-67 (author)2011-06-28

once grown, can this be used in a regular salt water tank?

flamekiller (author)boost-672011-09-22

I don't see why not. They aren't going to hurt the fish since they likely coexist in the wild. I think the difficulty would be the day/night cycle and if there's any kind of constant agitation, they'd wear out or have a short lifespan.

imshanedulong (author)boost-672011-08-12

I would also like to know this.

maliksudhir (author)2011-08-24

Hi ,
Can any one help me out in some calculation work its really very urgent , please help me out ..... i need to consume 1932.3kg/hr of CO2 with the help of Algae in a pond (water) for example Raceway pond , so i need to know the specific area to construct that pond and its sizing and dimension (length,etc) and the quantity of water needed and amount of algae used so that it easily consumes the mentioned amount of CO2 rate per hour..... please help me out soon you can also drop your suggestion and questions if any my email id is : ....i will be waiting for your reply soon and i'll be highly thankful to you, if someone can help please do tell me its very urgent....

Thank you

Matt Carl (author)2011-07-18

Anyone else remember these from the book Deception Point by Dan Brown? Great book :D

puerto-rico-rolf (author)2011-04-26

One comment about the different species: I ordered all three from Empco. In my experience Pyrocystis lunula is the one with the highest density, which is much more robust than the others and by far the brightest. So I can highly recommend these!

Congrats! And thanks for the suggestion, I'm ordering some now and wasn't sure which species to get

187inc (author)2010-06-10

i sail through red tide all the time. if you happen to be sitting on your boat at night in red tide, flush your toilet, the water is drawn from below the boat, water swirls around all blue while it flushes! haha i hear your not supposed to swim in it though, something about breeding plankton and ear infections. i cant remember. but hey, lets throw some in our bong and see what happens.

Sovereignty (author)187inc2010-12-18

I'm rolling. I'm so happy right now.

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