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One of the most impressive demonstrations of bioluminescence is also the easiest. Dinoflagellates, the most common sources of bioluminescence at the sea surface, are readily grown in the laboratory. They produce bright bioluminescence upon agitation. The following instructions describe how to obtain dinoflagellate cultures and grow them at home, school, or laboratory. Then check out the Web page on bioluminescence demonstrations. So good luck!


Cultures may be obtained from (in the U.S.A.):

  • The UTEX (University of Texas) Culture Collection of Algae
    (512) 471-4019, (512) 471-0354 FAX
    Cost is $15 per culture plus $15 for overnight FedEx shipping. Delivery in 2 weeks.
    Pyrocystis noctiluca LB2504 (large spherical cell, bright luminescence)
    Pyrocystis lunula LB2166 (rapid growth, bright luminescence)
    Pyrocystis lunula LB2504 (rapid growth, bright luminescence)

  • Carolina Biological Supply Co. [(800) 547-1733 for western U.S. or (800) 334-5551 in east]
    Note: Carolina Biological no longer sells luminescent dinoflagellates, although they do offer glowing bacteria and dried luminescent ostracods.


  • Sunnyside Sea Farms (California, 805-964-5844)
    Cultures of the bright dinoflagellate Pyrocystis are available for shipment worldwide.


Growth medium

Just as your houseplants (hopefully) get fertilizer to help them grow, so too do dinoflagellates have nutritional needs. Dinoflagellates require nitrate, phosphate, trace metals, and vitamins. Growth medium is sterile, so if don't have an autoclave available, it is easier to buy already prepared media than to make your own.

  • Carolina Biological Supply Co. [800-547-1733 for western U.S. or 800-334-5551 for Eastern U.S.]
    • Alga-Gro seawater medium "for culturing marine algae"
      Carolina Biological #15-3754, $10 per quart.
      This is a complete ready-to-go solution. Just add dinoflagellates.

    • Alga-Gro concentrated medium "enrichment for seawater"
      Carolina Biological #15-3750, 12 tubes $10 (each tube makes 1 liter)
      This enrichment is added to filtered seawater.


  • Sigma-Aldrich Co. [800-325-3010 for USA/Canada, 314-771-5750 outside USA/Canada (call collect)], www.sigmaaldrich.com
    • Guillard's (f/2) marine enrichment basal salt mixture without silicate
      "With the macro- and micronutrients as described by Guillard (1975)."
      Sigma #G1775, price $14.80 (USD) for 10 L.
      This is a complete ready-to-go solution. Just add dinoflagellates!

  • Do-your-own culture media (for the brave only, requires sensitive balance and autoclave for sterilization).
    Refer to recipes at the web site of the Provasoli-Guillard Center for the Culture of Marine Phytoplankton.

Maintaining cultures

All you need are lights and a timer. If you use sterile media and glassware, your cultures will continue forever; every month pour about 1/4 of the culture into some new medium. If you can't maintain sterile culture conditions, the cells will last for a few weeks to a month before bacteria overgrow the culture.

  • Room temperature (20-25 degC)
  • Illumination with cool-white fluorescent lamps
  • Light cycle (12 hr each light, dark - see below)
  • Culture flasks -- Sterilized glassware if autoclave is available, otherwise use disposable tissue culture flasks
  • Culture media (see above)


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