Grow Your Own Bioluminescent Algae




Introduction: 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

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

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

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!

Let It Glow!

Third Prize in the
Let It Glow!

The Instructables Book Contest

First Prize in the
The Instructables Book Contest



    • Creative Misuse Contest

      Creative Misuse Contest
    • Water Contest

      Water Contest
    • Fix It! Contest

      Fix It! Contest

    234 Discussions

    Is it okay to substitute the Micro Algae Grow and Sea Salt into Seawater?

    Is it okay to substitute the Micro Algae Grow into seawater?


    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)

    1 reply

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

    1 reply
    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...

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

    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.

    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

    I didnt know this was doable, great thanks!

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


    1 reply

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

    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.

    4 replies

    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.

    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

    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.

    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.