Photograph by Dan Tchernov
Marine biologist, ocean explorer, and professor David Gruber searches the undersea world for bioluminescent and biofluorescent marine animals. Gruber's discoveries are providing a wealth of new insights into a secret "language" of shining colors and patterns that help many marine creatures communicate, interact, and avoid enemies. He and his collaborators have illuminated and discovered novel fluorescent molecules from marine animals and are searching for connections between glowing sea life and the ability to visualize the inner workings of human cells. His research group at City University of New York and the American Museum of Natural History has deciphered the genomic code of scores of new fluorescent proteins, which are being developed as tools to aid in medical research and illuminate biological processes. On land, his team designs submersibles and other technologies to revolutionize ocean exploration and discovery. He is also designing extremely-light-sensitive cameras to film the shimmering sea creatures in much sharper resolution and employs submarines, robotic undersea vehicles, and technical diving to push the boundaries of our understanding of life in the deep sea.
Current City: New York, New York
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
The better question is what do I want to be when I grow up?
I find that in some scientific disciplines, the minute you feel you have fully grown up you lose your passion for discovery and, hence, your effectiveness in the field. When I was younger, I wanted a job that could appeal to my sense of adventure, and one that kept me in the ocean.
How did you get started in your field of work?
Surfing! When I was in my early teens, I spent a few summers in Hawaii, where I caught the wave-riding bug. It was in between sets that I began to wonder about the life beneath.
What inspires you to dedicate your life to marine biology?
I never get tired of the adventure and thrill of discovery. I'm inspired by the many layers of interconnected scientific knowledge swirling around in the ocean—biology, ecology, physics, chemistry, geology, etc.
What's a normal day like for you?
There is no typical day. My life is now split between New York City (Baruch College and the American Museum of Natural History)—where I teach university students, run laboratory experiments, test new equipment, and grow bioluminescent creatures—and setting out to sea on expeditions.
Do you have a hero and, if so, why is this person your hero?
I greatly admire many scientists, but my true heroes are those who engage in any creative discovery, not just scientific. As much as I draw inspiration from the scientific writings and drawings of Ernst Haeckel and the films of Jean Painlevé, I have equivalent admiration for the novels of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and the music of Charles Bradley. Creativity in the artistic fields is not far removed from the creativity necessary in the scientific ones—my heroes always have an open mind for discovery.
What's been your favorite experience in the field? Most challenging?
My favorite experiences are diving at night on remote reefs in search of new forms of bioluminescence and biofluorescence.
My most challenging experience occurred while I was a marine biologist for the state of Florida, studying seagrass habitats in the rivers leading into the Florida Bay. We would often arrive at our sampling stations to large groups of alligators basking on the shore. As the junior member of our group, I was always selected to start the research (enter the water). The drill was that the other scientists would bang an oar on the side of the boat when one of the gators slid off the muddy banks and into the water—signaling to me that I should get out ASAP! The burst of adrenaline I felt knowing I was in murky water with huge, Mesozoic, carnivorous reptiles is difficult to replicate in my everyday life.
What are your other passions?
While my work now involves technical SCUBA, I love free diving—holding my breath and diving underwater without any gear or gadgets. I also enjoy climbing, live music, and reporting/writing environmental and scientific stories.
If you could have people do one thing to help save oceans and coral reefs, what would it be?
Spend time in the ocean—get to know it. There is a whole world on a living reef, and it's elaborate and bustling like a busy city beneath the waves, just waiting to be explored. The more you understand coral reefs and become enamored by them, the more you will want to speak up for them and protect them.
So, get out there and explore. And then tell everyone you meet about all the cool things you've discovered.
What work did you accomplish with the grant from National Geographic?
Along with a team of marine biologists and medical scientists, I explored the coral reefs in the western province of the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific, looking for glowing and fluorescing marine animals. My colleagues and I discovered several new fluorescing creatures. In some instances, we've deciphered the genomic code of their fluorescent proteins, which are now being developed as tools to aid in medical and brain research.
On another project last year, we also explored the deep coral reefs of the Red Sea in Israel, down to 300 feet, to examine the symbiotic relationship between corals and their live-in algae at depth.
What project are you currently working on?
We are now in the process of building the first underwater remotely operated vehicle (ROV) that is specifically designed to study bioluminescence and biofluorescence on deep coral reefs. It's like a roving, submersible science lab that can dive down more than 2,000 feet beneath the ocean. In contrast, few human divers have explored depths below several hundred feet, and we believe these deeper habitats are teeming with unknown life.
In Their Words
There is a whole world on a living reef, and it's elaborate and bustling like a busy city beneath the waves, just waiting to be explored.
More About Gruber's Research
Camouflaged fish that normally blend into a coral reef light up like a Las Vegas casino when blue light strikes fluorescent materials in their skin.
Emerging Explorer David Gruber discovered a shark that reflects certain light, along with a stingray, eel and other fish.
David Gruber searches for the far-red fluorescent protein, which may only exist at the deepest depth photosynthesis can occur.