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Yes, It's a Lobster, and Yes, It's Blue

By KENNETH CHANG

Published: March 15, 2005

One lobster in a million is blue, and the reason is not that it has been holding its breath.

A combination of red and blue pigments in the shell of a live lobster creates a mottled camouflage of indeterminate hue that blends in with the ocean floor.

The red comes from the molecule astaxanthin, a cousin of beta carotene, which gives carrots their orange color and is a source of vitamin A. Astaxanthin, which looks red because it absorbs blue light, also colors shrimp shells and salmon flesh. The blue pigment in lobster shells also comes from crustacyanin, which is astaxanthin clumped together with a protein. "It's a gorgeous bluish color, almost an ice blue color," said Dr. Harry A. Frank, a professor of chemistry at the University of Connecticut. In an article that will be published in The Journal of Physical Chemistry, Dr. Frank and colleagues at Connecticut and Bowdoin College report data explaining why astaxanthin is red, but the astaxanthin-protein compound crustacyanin is blue.

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One possibility is that the protein twisted the astaxanthin. Dr. Frank said that while changing the shape of a molecule can shift its color from red to orange, for instance, the radical change to blue results from the protein pulling astaxanthin molecules close to each other.

The close proximity of two astaxanthins changes the orbits of the electrons in the molecules, causing them to absorb red light and thus appear blue. "The blue shift is one of the largest shifts that's seen in nature," said Dr. Ronald L. Christensen, a chemistry professor at Bowdoin and another author of the paper.

In the blue lobsters, a genetic mutation has caused an overabundance of the astaxanthin-wrapping proteins, tying up all of the red astaxanthin into blue crustacyanin. Lobstermen in Maine find a blue lobster every year or two, and such rarities generally find their way to aquariums.

But a blue lobster would make an unremarkable meal. Heat breaks down the astaxanthin-wrapping protein, destroying the blue pigment. In other words, on a dinner plate, a blue lobster would probably be just like any other lobster: red.


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