A team of international scientists, including researchers from Tel Aviv University and Israel’s Interuniversity Institute for Marine Sciences (IUI), have discovered that glowing deep sea rainbow coral may hold a vital key to helping fight cancer.

Team member Jörg Wiedenmann of the University of Southhampton explained.

“These fluorescent pigments [that make the coral glow] are proteins. When they are illuminated with blue or ultraviolet light, they give back light of longer wavelengths, such as reds or greens,” Wiedenmann noted.

“Their optical properties potentially make them important tools for biomedical imaging applications,” he continued, “as their fluorescent glow can be used to highlight living cells or cellular structures of interest under the microscope.”

Wiedenmann added that the ability to mark living cells with markers would be especially valuable for cancer research and could potentially help lead to a cure.

“They could also be applied to track cancer cells or as tools to screen for new drugs,” he said.

The discovery of the fluorescent properties of the coral was made possible by recent advances in diving, which is opening new, previously unexplored territory for researchers in the Red Sea.

According to Gal Eyal, a PhD candidate at IUI, the glowing rainbow coral central to their research “are beyond the depth limits of standard scuba diving techniques.”

Newer technical diving methods, however, have allowed the rainbow coral to be explored closely for the first time, leading to some surprises, including the reason behind the deep-sea corals glow.

“Since only the blue parts of the sunlight penetrate to depths greater than 50 metres, we were not expecting to see any red coloration around,” Eyal said, talking about the team’s rainbow coral findings. “To our surprise, we found a number of corals showing an intense green or orange glow. This could only be due to the presence of fluorescent pigments.”