It’s a popular misconception that lobsters are red in colour. That’s because most people have never seen a live lobster, and what gets served up in their lobster thermidor is distinctly red in colour. It’s one of my pet hates when media shows lobsters as red, right up their with the reporter talking about the oxygen tanks worn by the scuba divers. Grrr! As divers we are well positioned to know that lobsters are a dark shade of blue-green, but it’s not just the shell that’s blue, so is the lobster’s blood.
Technically the lobster doesn’t have blood in the way that we would understand it. They have haemolymph, a fluid equivalent to blood that circulates inside arthrpods. Haemolymph is mostly watery with some salts and nutrients dissolved in. There are some cells known as haemocytes, but in arthropods these play a role in the immune system of the organism. There aren’t any red blood cells containing haemoglobin to carry oxygen like we have. Instead invertebrates have some special proteins in their haemolymph called haemocyanins that transport oxygen for them.
Haemocyanins are metalloproteins that have two copper atoms which can reversibly bind to a single oxygen molecule. Oxygenation causes a colour change from the colourless deoxygenated form to the blue oxygenated form. Haemocyanins are only found in molluscs and arthropods but aren’t limited to marine animals and can be found in tarantulas, scorpions and centipedes too. Haemocyanins turn out to be rather more efficient than haemoglobin at binding to oxygen in cold environments and when the oxygen pressure is low. Sounds ideal for the average marine crustacean.
Lobster haemolymph has been shown to have antiviral properties, but only in the uncooked state. In research it was shown to be effective against the viruses that cause shingles and warts. In fact, there is an American based company that has developed a blood-based cream for treating cold sores and skin lesions, although it’s yet to get approval from the regulatory authorities.
So, we’ve established that copper coloured proteins give lobsters their blue blood, but that’s not the explanation for the shell changing colour when the lobster is cooked. For this we have to look at another protein called crustacyanin, and its best buddy astaxanthin. Astaxanthin is a carotenoid pigment so it absorbs blue light and gives off red/orange colour. Astaxanthins are mostly synthesised by microalgae and enters the marine food chain. In shellfish the astaxanthin becomes concentrated in the shell. Its likely that astaxanthins have a string antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effect and may protect against age-related degeneration. Astaxanthins are also found in some sponges, starfish and in species of octopush and cuttlefish. They give the muscle tissue of the salmon its characteristic colour.
Crustacyanin is a very interesting chromoprotein, that changes colour depending on whether it is in water or dehydrated. When it’s bound to the lipid like astaxanthin it has a distinctly blue colour. While a lobster is alive, crustacyanin stays bound tightly to astaxanthin, so tightly that the astanxanthin’s light-absorption properties are quashed and the complex appears to be blue-green in colour. That all stops when the lobster hits the boiling water.
Crustacyanin is not heat stable, so the boiling temperatures cause it to unravel and lose its grip on astaxanthin. The true colours of the astaxanthin then shine through in the red lobster shell. In fact, they were there all the time, you just couldn’t see them. It’s the same mechanisms for cooking shrimp too. Flamingos rather cleverly digest the crustacyanin protein to release the astaxanthins that colour their feathers soft pink.
Michelle has been scuba diving for nearly 30 years. Drawing on her science background she tackles some bits of marine science. and sometimes has a sideways glance at the people and events that she encounters in the diving world.