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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. The name originates from the Greek bios for "living" and the Latin lumen "light". Bioluminescence may be generated by symbiotic organisms carried within a larger organism. It is generated by an enzyme-catalyzed chemoluminescence reaction, wherein a luciferin (a kind of pigment) is oxidised by a luciferase (a kind of enzyme). Adenosine triphosphate (ATP) is involved in most instances. The chemical reaction can be either external to cells, or an intracellular process. The expression of genes related to bioluminescence in bacteria is controlled by an operon called lux operon.

Missing image
Artistic rendering of bioluminescent Antarctic krill (watercolor by Uwe Kils)

Characteristics of the phenomenon

Bioluminescence is a form of luminescence or "cold light" emission; less than 20% of the light is generated by thermal radiation. It should not be confused with fluorescence, phosphorescence or refraction of light.

90% 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, unsurprisingly these wavelengths have the most powerful penetrating power in water. However certain loose jawed fish emit red and infrared light.

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 New Zealand glow worms. Other insects, insect larvae, annelids, arachnids and even species of fungi have been noted to possess bioluminescent abilities.

Most forms of bioluminescence are brighter (or only exist) at night, following a circadian rhythm.

Adaptations for bioluminescence

There are four main accepted theories for the evolution of bioluminescent traits:

  1. Camouflage
  2. Attraction
  3. Repulsion
  4. Communication


It may seem paradoxical that shining brighter can be a form of camouflage, yet several species of fish and squid utilise bioluminescence in counterillumination against the night sky. Bobtail squid when viewed from underneath disappears against the light of the moon and stars.


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. It should be noted that some fish utilize a non-bioluminescent lure.

The cookie cutter shark is thought to utilize a bioluminescent patch on its underbelly to appear as a small fish to large predatory fish like tuna and mackerel. When these fish try to consume the "small fish", they are bitten 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 who utilize 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 crustacean 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.

The honey mushroom attracts insects using bioluminescence, hoping the insects will help disseminate the fungus' spores into the environment.


Certain squid and small crustaceans utilize bioluminescent chemical mixtures, or bioluminescent bacterial slurries in the same way as many squid use ink. A cloud of luminescence is expulsed confusing, or repelling a potential predator while the squid or crustacean escapes to safety.

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"Artificial" bioluminescence induced by genetic engineering of a tobacco plant.


Bioluminescence is thought to play a direct role in communication between bacteria (see quorum sensing). It promotes the symbiotic induction of bacteria into host species, and may play a role in colony aggregation.


Bioluminescent organisms are a target for many areas of research. Luciferase systems are widely used in the field of genetic engineering as reporter genes (see green fluorescent protein, and picture left).

Vibrio symbiosis with numerous marine invertebrates and fish, namely the Hawaiian bobtail squid (Euprymna scolopes) is a key experimental model for symbiosis, quorum sensing, and bioluminescence.

The structure of photophores, the light producing organs, in bioluminescent organisms is being investigated by industrial designers.

Some (incredulous) artificial applications of bioluminescence that have been proposed include:

  • Christmas trees that don't need lights, reducing dangerous electronics
  • glowing trees to line highways to save government electricity bills
  • agricultural crops and domestic plants that luminesce when they need watering
  • new methods for detecting bacterial contamination of meats and other foods
  • detecting bacterial species in suspicious corpses
  • novelty pets that bioluminesce (rabbits, mice etc.)

Organisms that bioluminesce

It should be noted that all cells produce some form of bioluminescence within the electromagnetic spectrum, but most is 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.
Missing image
Image of hundreds of agar plates cultured with a species of bioluminescent marine bacteria displayed in a pattern as an art exhibit called "Bioglyphs" at Montana State University–Bozeman.

Non-marine organisms


Marine invertebrates

Plankton and microbes

See also

For the ficticious bioluminescent Pokémon character, see Lanturn.

External links

es:bioluminiscencia nl:bioluminiscentie fi:Bioluminesenssi


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