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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”.

[snip]

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.

Reference:
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.

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Comments

  1. #1 Babe in the Universe
    October 11, 2006

    It is interesting how scientists jazz up the pictures. How many astronomical photos have been colour-enhanced? I wish the Australian jellyfish would glow in the dark so we snorkellers could watch out for them.

  2. #2 SMC
    October 11, 2006

    Also, wasn’t it somewhere else on ScienceBlogs that I saw someone complaining about the annoying “strange purple and orange glow” that advertisers of lab equipment seem to insist on lighting prop glassware with in their photos?

    I have been wondering about GFP though – 1)if you shine UV on a live jellyfish that naturally expresses the protein, is there enough of the protein to see it? 2)Has GFP ever been evaluated for food safety (because I’ve been threatening to make “glowgurt” with transformed lactobacilli for years…). I know some species of jellyfish actually are eaten in parts of the world, but don’t know if any of them express GFP.

  3. #3 Sandra Porter
    October 12, 2006

    Babe: I can’t speak to astronomy pics although, I like them. In biology, certain types of photos are routinely enhanced with color – e.g. pictures from electron microscopy images. In general, this is probably okay since it’s common knowledge in the community that those kinds of pictures are enhanced, so doing this isn’t likely to mislead anyone.

    This situation is a bit more grey, since people have been misled by the color-enhanced pictures of jellyfish.

    SMC:

    1)if you shine UV on a live jellyfish that naturally expresses the protein, is there enough of the protein to see i

    .

    First, all jellyfish (as far as I know) make the GFP protein (or a similar protein) naturally. It was, in fact, discovered in jellyfish. The luminescence that does occur naturally, occurs in compact ring, you can see it here if you scroll down a bit.

    Second, I don’t know if GFP has been evaluated for food safety. There are some standard tests, though, that people use for evaluating potential allergens – such as stability, size, etc. GFP is pretty easy to get, so you could see how it holds up in those kinds of assays.

  4. #4 eric
    October 12, 2006

    Those gorgeous images from Hubble are all colored (ie, not as you’d see the objects in reality), if I recall correctly. I think it’s definitely potentially misleading since we tend to assume that the images are true. On the other hand, the coloring gets far more people interested in a particular area (and this can help those which are publicly funded, eh?).

    It’s surprising how much credence images carry in a time in which they are so easily modified. Surely this is partly because they come from supposedly authoritative sources.

  5. #5 Sandra Porter
    October 12, 2006

    Eric:

    You’re right, that’s exactly the point. When a source lacks scientific authority – as in an advertisement, altered images aren’t as great a problem. However, when an image is published by a source that claims authority – like a scientific or educational publication – there is an implied responsibility to either portray truthful images or make it clear, somehow that the images have been doctored.

  6. #6 Paul Decelles
    October 15, 2006

    Exactly. I am amazed at how many of my students see a false colored TEM say and assume that those mitochondria really are red. :-) As for the Hubble images, the coloring is often because the images are in areas of the electromagnetic spectrum that we cannot see. So that false coloring enables us to visually process what’s going on.

    This is not new of course. If you have seen those wonderful photos of the Crab Nebula in visible light, those are long time exposures to render visible, light that is too faint to see.