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The Bright Side And Dark Side Of Blue Light

Rick Holter

Light is necessary for life on earth, but scientists believe that too much of a certain wavelength can cause everything from crop diseases to changes in the migratory patterns of animals. SMU professor Brian Zoltowski is working to unravel the mystery of blue light in a study funded by the National Institutes of Health.

 Interview Highlights: Brian Zoltowski

… On what defines blue light:

“Blue light refers to a part of the electromagnetic spectrum that has specific energy. Usually we define things by basically their wavelength of light. So typically blue light can be centered around 450 nanometers but can range ... from about 425 nanometers to 475 nanometers.”

… On the origin of excess blue light:

“Blue light is very abundant in nature in general. That’s why organisms actually use that wavelength of light to drive their biological processes. But it turns out though that because it’s abundant in nature, we like to have it to be abundant in our products like our lights, our computers, our laptops and everything else. So we introduce a lot more foreign blue light into the environment compared to what should naturally be there.”

… On blue light’s effects in animals vs. plants:

“A lot of that is not known, which is one of the reasons we’re actually doing a lot of this research. What we do know is that blue is extremely important for basically growth and development of any organism you can conceive of. How that’s ultimately regulated and when there can be too much is a big question. The bigger question is when you get the blue light, nature is designed to use blue light as a signal as to what time of day it is. So when we’re introducing blue light into the environment or into our daily lives through computers and laptops, we’re introducing blue light at times of day like evening when we’re not supposed to see it – and that basically causes dysfunction in our biological processes."

… On how blue light fosters fungal growth:

“There’s growing understanding that a lot of these fungal pathogens of plants – there are several that actually attack wine, which causes billions of dollars of crop loss each year. There are some that we’re interested in that also basically attack a lot of your grain crops -- so you’re looking at wheat, alfalfa -- that have very detrimental aspects to agriculture. Their ability to infect the plant is regulated by blue light.”

… On blue light affecting butterflies and birds:

“There is research going back several years now that a protein we had done a lot of work on in the past called cryptochrome actually can sense the magnetic field of the Earth and they need blue light to activate it, and then once it’s activated it tells them basically where north and south is, so they can migrate around the planet by using that blue light sensor.”

… On how understanding blue light can lead to better drug treatments:

“There is some great research that was done recently that shows the same protein cryptochrome, which is a blue light receptor in many organisms – actually regulates diabetes and gluconeogenesis to some extent. So there are drugs that are being marketed right now for targeting that protein. But more importantly, the fact that blue light drives what we call our circadian clocks, our natural 24-hour rhythm, helps our body know when we should be getting food. So anything that’s metabolically based will be tied into this clock and because of that metabolic disorders like diabetes are very tied into this blue light reception and basically how we are perceiving our environment.”

Justin Martin is KERA’s local host of All Things Considered, anchoring afternoon newscasts for KERA 90.1. Justin grew up in Mannheim, Germany, and avidly listened to the Voice of America and National Public Radio whenever stateside. He graduated from the American Broadcasting School, and further polished his skills with radio veteran Kris Anderson of the Mighty 690 fame, a 50,000 watt border-blaster operating out of Tijuana, Mexico. Justin has worked as holiday anchor for the USA Radio Network, serving the U.S. Armed Forces Network. He’s also hosted, produced, and engineered several shows, including the Southern Gospel Jubilee on 660 KSKY.