Emission of light by an organism or biochemical system (e.g., the glow of bacteria on decaying meat or fish, the phosphorescence of protozoans in tropical seas, the flickering signals of fireflies). It occurs in a wide range of protists and animals, including bacteria and fungi, insects, marine invertebrates, and fish. It is not known to exist naturally in true plants or in amphibians, reptiles, birds, or mammals. It results from a chemical reaction that produces radiant energy very efficiently, giving off very little heat. The essential light-emitting components are usually the organic molecule luciferin and the enzyme luciferase, which are specific for different organisms. In higher organisms, light production is used to frighten predators and to help members of a species recognize each other. Its functional role in lower organisms such as bacteria, dinoflagellates, and fungi is uncertain. Luminous species are widely scattered taxonomically, with no clear-cut pattern, though most are marine.
Learn more about bioluminescence with a free trial on Britannica.com.
Bioluminescence is the production and emission of light by a living organism as the result of a chemical reaction during which chemical energy is converted to light energy. Its name is a hybrid word, originating from the Greek bios for "living" and the Latin lumen "light". Adenosine triphosphate (ATP) is involved in most instances. The chemical reaction can occur either inside or outside the cell. In bacteria, the expression of genes related to bioluminescence is controlled by an operon called the Lux operon. Bioluminescence has appeared independently several times (up to 30 or more) during evolution.
Ninety percent of deep-sea marine life is estimated to produce bioluminescence in one form or another. Most marine light-emission belongs in the blue and green light spectrum, the wavelengths that can transmit through the seawater most easily. However, certain loose-jawed fish emit red and infrared light and the genus Tomopteris emits yellow bioluminescence.
Non-marine bioluminescence is less widely distributed, but a larger variety in colours is seen. The two best-known forms of land bioluminescence are fireflies and glow worms. Other insects, insect larvae, annelids, arachnids and even species of fungi have been noted to possess bioluminescent abilities.
Some forms of bioluminescence are brighter (or only exist) at night, following a circadian rhythm.
Bioluminescence is used as a lure to attract prey by several deep sea fish such as the anglerfish. A dangling appendage that extends from the head of the fish attracts small animals to within striking distance of the fish. Some fish, however, use a non-bioluminescent lure.
The cookiecutter shark uses bioluminescence for camouflage, but a small patch on its underbelly remains dark and appears as a small fish to large predatory fish like tuna and mackerel. When these fish try to consume the "small fish", they are eaten by the shark.
Dinoflagellates have an interesting twist on this mechanism. When a predator of plankton is sensed through motion in the water, the dinoflagellate luminesces. This in turn attracts even larger predators which will consume the would-be predator of the dinoflagellate.
The attraction of mates is another proposed mechanism of bioluminescent action. This is seen actively in fireflies, which use periodic flashing in their abdomens to attract mates in the mating season. In the marine environment this has only been well-documented in certain small crustaceans called ostracod. It has been suggested that pheromones may be used for long-distance communication, and bioluminescent used at close range to "home in" on the target.
Bioluminescent organisms are a target for many areas of research. Luciferase systems are widely used in the field of genetic engineering as reporter genes. Luciferase systems have also been harnessed for biomedical research using bioluminescence imaging.
Some proposed applications of engineered bioluminescence include:
All cells produce some form of bioluminescence within the electromagnetic spectrum, but most are neither visible nor noticeable to the naked eye. Every organism's bioluminescence is unique in wavelength, duration, timing and regularity of flashes. Below follows a list of organisms which have been observed to have visible bioluminescence.