The tiny Pyrocystis fusiformis reacted differently to a variety of music and beats.
Out in some parts of the ocean, tiny microbes called Pyrocystis fusiformis congregate and illuminate the water as waves build and crash. When Satbir Multani and Mathura Govindarajan, two students at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, heard that these dinoflagellates did this in response to vibration, they wondered what would happen if they played music around them. In a series of art experiments, they watched the microbes lighting up like color-clad ravers dancing under black light.
During the day, these photosynthetic organisms consume carbon dioxide and emit oxygen, playing an important role in regulating Earth’s atmospheric balance. But at night, the congregating microbes get their shine on. When something mechanical disturbs them, like an ocean wave, a current or even a predator, a chemical reaction causes 4,500 teensy light sources within each of their bodies to twinkle. The lights may act like a burglar alarm — alerting other animals of their location so that their predators will be attacked before getting the chance to attack them.
Ms. Multani and Ms. Govindarajan obtained living P. fusiformis cells online. Then the students D.J.’ed different beats and music while containers of microbes rested on vibrating speakers. The microbes glowed for around 20 seconds under the vibrations of heavy beats, and then needed to rest for about half an hour before they could start shining again. “They do not glow continuously when agitated,” wrote the students in an email.
The students observed that the microbes shined brightest to single beats and wore out most quickly after hearing strings and low amplitude vibrations. The microbes appeared to favor “Crystallize” by Lindsey Stirling, an American violinist, but they weren’t big fans of Kanye West’s “Heartless.”