Mushlume UFO by Urbz brings back the glowing dinoflagellate aquarium at the intersection of biology and design
Growing up in a landlocked part of the southeastern United States, it wasn’t until Andy Bass moved to San Diego, California that he experienced a new type of starry night—the kind in the ocean.
Every few years, microscopic algae called dinoflagellates bloom in the billions along the coast of southern California. These plankton photosynthesize during the day, but radiate neon blue light when disturbed at night, bathing entire ocean waves in an otherworldly glow as they crash into the beach.
Bass took a sample of these dinoflagellates and discovered that they could thrive indoors at room temperature and in indirect sunlight. His home-grown bioluminescent plankton were an instant hit among neighbors and friends—and so the Dino Pet was born.
Some may remember Bass’ apatosaurus-shaped aquarium, which first made waves on the Internet as a successful Kickstarter campaign. After its acquisition by Intrexon in 2013, however, the Dino Pet became unavailable. Bass felt like something special had been lost.
“I saw people and how they interacted with the Dino Pet,” he muses. “I feel like there’s a missing piece now, a missing educational tool.”
And so in 2018, Bass founded Urbz with his wife Maryann and daughter Roarke to bring the outdoors into people’s homes. Now, finally, dinoflagellates are back. The Mushlume UFO is the next generation of the plankton aquarium. Available for pre-order on Urbz’s website until December 1, Bass hopes to reach enough backers to begin shipping Mushlume in March 2021.
A cross between a glowing mushroom and an alien UFO (“Unidentified Fun Object”), Mushlume’s new design incorporates the lessons that Bass learned from the Dino Pet. It has a valve for gas exchange, a structure that maximizes dinoflagellate brightness, and intuitive care instructions for the slow-growing plankton. At night, a gentle swirl produces a starry light show—something Bass says is “almost magical.”
At times, the electric blue glow emanating from Mushlume appears so otherworldly and unnatural, even synthetic, that it’s hard to believe it’s being produced by a living organism. Like us, the plankton have a circadian rhythm governed by the cycle of day and night. Their biological clocks determine whether or not to produce chemical light, and unlike glow-in-the-dark toys, they can’t be tricked by cupping the aquarium in your hands.
As the father of a seven-year-old girl, Bass also wants to bring “fresh eyes and fresh minds to the table” when it comes to biology. There are LEGOs, electronics kits, and programming games, but what do you get to foster a child’s interest in biology? That’s where Mushlume works its magic. Young and old alike are drawn to the strange and the luminous. Bass’s bioluminescent aquarium harnesses both to mesmerize people of all ages with the natural world.
Bass believes that bioluminescence can help people look at life a little differently, and hopes that this includes awareness of the grave need for better stewardship of our oceans. Humble plankton, for instance, are responsible for more than 50% of all photosynthesis that occurs on Earth. The dinoflagellates in Mushlume are grown by Bass himself and never harvested from the beaches of San Diego. By caring for these luminous microorganisms, Mushlume owners can connect to an even greater commitment: preserving our planet’s biodiversity.
Subscribe to my weekly synthetic biology newsletter. Thank you to Desiree Ho for additional research and reporting in this article. I’m the founder of SynBioBeta, and some of the companies that I write about are sponsors of the SynBioBeta Global Synthetic Biology Summit.1