Beautiful Bioluminescence: Cool Chemistry (and Amusing Alliteration?

Beautiful Bioluminescence: Cool Chemistry (and Amusing Alliteration?). You’ve all seen the What’s Hot photos. Here comes the science.

What is it? Bioluminescence is light produced by a chemical reaction within a living organism. It requires a chemical, generically called luciferin, and an enzyme catalyst, luciferase. It is different from fluorescence or phosphorescence, which involve the re-emission of absorbed light.

Where is it? Over 80% of bioluminescence comes from the ocean. There is virtually none in fresh water,for unknown reasons. On land, most bioluminescence comes from fireflies and mushrooms (see images).

How did it evolve? Based on the number of distinct light-producing chemical mechanisms, it is estimated that bioluminescence evolved independently at least 40 times! This convergent evolution suggests that it is important to organisms, and also it must be relatively easy to make. In fact, there are surprisingly few luciferins, most are acquired in the food chain (as vitamins or chlorophyll) or synthesized from common amino acids. For example, coelenterazine is the light emitter for nine phyla. However, luciferase enzymes are very different proteins across species. More on chemistry: http://www.lifesci.ucsb.edu/~biolum/chem/detail2.html

Biophysics: Bioluminescence is typically blue light, which is best suited for the optical transparency of sea water. Sometimes, as in infra-red detecting Malacosteid fish, the initial blue light is absorbed and re-emitted as red, which is then used to find prey. Light intensity varies from 6e8 photons to 2e11photons, lasting from a fraction of second to many tens of seconds long.

Neuroscience: In multicelled animals, luminescence is neurally controlled by neurotransmitters like glutamate or nor-adrenaline. In single celled dinoflagellates, a proton channel was just cloned that links mechanical perturbation to pH changes, as a trigger for bioluminescence.

Milky Seas: Did you know that bioluminescence has been observed from satellites? Or that Jules Verne described milky seas in his novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea? (I’ll let you intrepid plussers find out more).

Biomedical Science: Bioluminescence is a favorite tool of researchers (including myself)! Firefly luciferin uses ATP to generate light, so it can be used as a highly sensitive and quantitative biosensor for ATP. If the luciferase gene is inserted into tumor cells, then tumor growth and metastasis can be followed in live mice using whole body imaging. Similarly, bioluminescence generated by jellyfish aqueorin requires calcium ions, so many researchers use it to follow calcium signaling in cells.

#bioluminescence , #sciencesunday for ScienceSunday . Thanks to Allison Sekuler and Robby Bowles for maintaining this Page and inviting me to guest-curate this morning. It was fun!

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39 Responses to Beautiful Bioluminescence: Cool Chemistry (and Amusing Alliteration?


  1. Could we one day, use something like this to light up our homes perhaps?

  2. Chad Haney says:


    Oh no Rajini Rao you said the “E word”. I got badgered in a comment section in a post about the DSI –> brain geometry stuff that’s been all over G+. Someone brought up evolution. I merely commented that there’s a difference between believing and knowing. Liz Krane’s post linked here http://goo.gl/RGzts if anyone wants to follow the drama.


    Speaking of the DSI stuff, I promise to post something for #sciencesunday since you are the guest curator and you asked me for some commentary on it. I’m working on my disclaimer first. :~)

  3. Rajini Rao says:


    Chad Haney , I’m happy to jump into drama if it involves the E word..let me check it out. At times, it appears that people troll G+ looking for it 🙂 My post today seems pretty harmless though.

  4. Chad Haney says:


    Rajini Rao I agree, your mention of it will hopefully be poor bait for the trolls. I guess I brought it up because I was upset with myself for getting into that debate, which I often avoid. 99% of the time it’s pointless.

  5. EfferSidd says:


    Great post! Thanks!!!

  6. Chad Haney says:


    Relevant to this post, here’s how one images animals using bioluminescence. We have a couple of these machines in our Optical Imaging facility. http://goo.gl/RlWfj


    Somewhat related, is a technique called Photoacoustic imaging, which one of my colleagues is doing research in that area.


    http://goo.gl/VzhCL

  7. Rajini Rao says:


    Very cool, must read links Chad Haney . Actually, I kinda wondered how one could image light emission (in tumor metastasized to the lung, for example) through an animal’s body.

  8. Rajini Rao says:


    Yes, Jose M. G. Guerreiro . This sort of optical imaging is commonly used to detect light from bioluminescence as a tracer to follow cells. The advantage, of course, is that it is non invasive so one can take multiple images of the same animal over time. I’m wondering how they can be so sensitive as to detect light emission from deep within the body? I can understand if it was a form of radioactive emission..that could go right through tissues to an external detector.


  9. Well like you say luciferin and luciferase, that’s fantastic, maybe we can only understand radioactivity, because we made to many bets on that.


  10. I’m not a scientist 🙂

  11. Chad Haney says:


    Rajini Rao that is an issue, depth of penetration. Interestingly Perkin Elmer has purchased both of the systems we have. The sensitivity is very high due to the thermoelectrically cooled CCD camera with a water chiller and the enclosure that does not allow any ambient light in.


    http://goo.gl/4kyjI


    It’s not my area, but I have two colleagues that are deeply involved in optical imaging.

  12. Rajini Rao says:


    Chad Haney , photoacoustic imaging sounds very interesting too, but they make the point that much of the signal is absorbed by blood so you actually get a picture of the blood supply. It’s still seems pretty awesome to me that light emission can be detected so well in deep tissues. At a cellular level, TIRF microscopy lets you look at fluorescence only in the immediate vicinity of the surface before the light signal dies off.


  13. One day we can see all we want in our inner cells, like Hubble looks Universe.

  14. Rajini Rao says:


    Jose M. G. Guerreiro , we do already, there are spectacular images of cells and the brain in many cases cannot be distinguished from the Universe. I did a series of posts at one time called “Cellular or Celestial?”..two images side by side, and it was typically impossible to tell them apart! 🙂


  15. I saw that, but with or without intrusion ? Rajini Rao

  16. Rajini Rao says:


    Intrusion, meaning…? Do you mean, do we have to destroy the cells to take the images? No, we don’t. Imaging can done with intact (live) cells, especially if they take up a fluorescent dye or are engineered to make a fluorescent (or bioluminescent) protein.

  17. Rich Pollett says:


    Suhail Manzoor if you don’t care for a bacterial lamp I’d seen these a few weeks ago making the rounds here, you may have seen them also. Jellyfish lamps. http://goo.gl/T0yyV


  18. Thanks for pointing this one out to me Rich Pollett , they are really pretty. I might even get a couple 🙂


  19. Yes it is amazing, I agree with +Jose M. G. Guerreiro

  20. Chad Haney says:


    Rajini Rao I think Jose M. G. Guerreiro means imaging non-invasively (my area of interest :D). We can do a lot of different types of molecular imaging non-invasively, i.e., in an intact animal, in vivo. I’m working on a presentation to show non-imaging people the types of imaging available at the University of Chicago and what each type is useful for. We often get new users asking if we can image such-and-such. For example, a student wanted to image the pelvic region of a lungfish to see how the fins are attached. I explained that MRI would show soft tissue and CT would be best to visualize the bone. Turns out that the lungfish is more like a shark, i.e., it has a lot of collagen type bones.

  21. Rajini Rao says:


    Some of those Powerpoint slides can be turned into a handy G+ post, Chad Haney ! Just sayin’….


  22. Hey Rich Pollett , I found it. Its here http://goo.gl/VSruP

  23. Rajini Rao says:


    Hmm, can’t seem to find any sources for why rare jellyfish would swarm in a leap year, Suhail Manzoor .


  24. Nice summary! Thanks Rajini. 🙂

  25. Rajini Rao says:


    You’re right, Feisal Kamil , some jellyfish and squid are quite large…so probably they’re the largest bioluminescent creatures. Also, some fish eat bioluminescent organisms or just tuck them away somewhere to borrow their glow.

  26. alim khan says:


    Nice, great location


  27. Nice very informative!!!!


  28. That’s what I mean Chad Haney, thanks.

  29. Norman M. says:


    Love it, mood mushrooms and mood ocean waves.

  30. Abi Malar says:


    all your posts are extra ordinary. as a indian its was really proud to hav such a innovative friend!!!!!!!!!!

  31. Rajini Rao says:


    Thank you, Abi Malar 🙂

  32. Abi Malar says:


    its my pleasure to recieve ur reply. thank you for that.

  33. Thomas Kang says:


    I just learned that luciferase comes from Lucifer, the root of which means light bearer. That makes sense from luc, but I had no idea that that was where Lucifer came from. It makes sense now that Lucifer would come from that, since he’s an angel who has fallen to the dark side.

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