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Bioluminescence: Light Production and Uses in Living Organisms

Updated on January 14, 2018
AliciaC profile image

Linda Crampton has an honors degree in biology. She has taught high school biology, chemistry, and other science subjects for many years.

A bioluminescent ctenophore in the deep ocean
A bioluminescent ctenophore in the deep ocean | Source

What Is Bioluminescence?

Bioluminescence is a process in which living organisms produce light. The light often looks beautiful to humans and has a very important function for its producer. Organisms use light for communication, for defence, or for attracting a mate or prey.

A wide variety of creatures produce bioluminescence. These creatures include some types of animals, fungi, protists, and bacteria. Most bioluminescent organisms live in the deep ocean, but some live in shallow water or on land.

Bioluminescence creates a cold light that is accompanied by very little heat. The process of producing the light is a complex process that is not completely understood. Researchers have suggested that bioluminescent organisms may one day be useful to humans.

Bioluminescence is produced by the reaction between luciferin and oxygen. The word luciferin comes from the Latin word lucifer, which means “light bearer.”

How Is Bioluminescence Produced?

Bioluminescent organisms contain a pigment molecule with the general name of luciferin. A chemical reaction between luciferin and oxygen releases energy in the form of light. In most bioluminescent organisms, an enzyme called luciferase triggers the reaction.

There are several kinds of luciferin, each having a different chemical structure. Examples include firefly luciferin, dinoflagellate luciferin, and bacterial luciferin. Vargulin is a type of luciferin found in the midshipman fish, which lives in deep water. Coelenterazine is the luciferin found in some fish and invertebrates.

Some bioluminescent organisms make their own luciferin. Others obtain it from the creatures that they eat. Some light emitters house bioluminescent bacteria within their body and use the light produced by the bacteria.

Bioluminescent coral and crinoids
Bioluminescent coral and crinoids | Source

The light released by bioluminescence generally appears white, yellow, green or—especially in the deep ocean—a beautiful shade of blue.

Bioluminescence in Ocean Life

The Flashlight Fish

Many bioluminescent organisms are found in deep, dark ocean water far from sunlight. In fact, scientists think that about ninety percent of animals in deep water are bioluminescent. Marine organisms usually produce light with a blue-green colour, which is the colour of light that travels best under water. The eyes of underwater animals detect blue light better than light of other colours.

The flashlight fish is one deep water inhabitant that produces light. The light-producing organ of the fish is called a photophore and is located beneath each of its eyes. The light is actually produced by bioluminescent bacteria that live in the photophores. The fish can flash its light on and off by covering the organ with a flap of skin that acts somewhat like an eyelid. The video below shows the flashlight fish when illuminated by a video light and then when the video light is turned off.

Flashlight Fish in Action

The Deep Sea Anglerfish

The deep sea anglerfish has a bioluminescent lure attached to a movable spine extending from its head. It also has a set of fearsome teeth. As in the flashlight fish, the bioluminescence is produced by bacteria.

When the anglerfish needs to eat, it lowers its “fishing rod” towards its mouth and flicks the glowing end to attract prey. The rest of the fish is hard to see in the darkness. Once the prey approaches, the anglerfish grabs hold of it with strong jaws. Since the stomach of the anglerfish can expand dramatically, the fish is able to eat large prey animals when they are available.

A Deep Sea Anglerfish in Action

The firefly squid, sparkling enope squid or hotaru-ika has numerous photophores. It's admired for its bioluminescence and is also used as food.
The firefly squid, sparkling enope squid or hotaru-ika has numerous photophores. It's admired for its bioluminescence and is also used as food. | Source

Bioluminescence in the Firefly Squid (Watasenia scintillans)

The firefly squid is a tiny creature with a big light display. It reaches a length of only three inches. Photophores are present in many parts of its body and produce a rich blue light. The photophores may all emit light at the same time or the light may be released non-synchronously in a pattern. The complex light patterns are believed to have several functions. They may be a signal to rivals and mates and may confuse predators.

One of the best places to see the firefly squid is at Toyama Bay in Japan. During the mating season, thousands of squid are present in the bay. They spend the night in deep water and the day at shallow depths. While they are in shallow water, they emit their light as they search for a mate. The overall effect of thousands of squid producing a blue light is spectacular.

The Firefly Squid or Hotaru-Ika

Light Production by the Vampire Squid

The vampire squid doesn't suck blood as its name might suggest. The name comes from the webbing between the squid's arms and perhaps from the animal's reddish colour. The webbing produces a structure that is reminiscent of Dracula's hood. The squid is six to twelve inches long and has large, blue eyes. It also has side fins. Despite its name, it's classified in a different order from true squids.

Like the firefly squid, the vampire squid has many photophores on its body and is able to create complex patterns of flashing lights. The animal also releases a sticky, bioluminescent mucus to confuse predators. The mucus is released as a glowing cloud that gives the squid a chance to escape.

The Vampire Squid (Vampyroteuthis infernalis)

Researchers have discovered that the diet of vampire squids consists of marine snow. The "snow" is the collection of dead plankton, fecal pellets, and gelatinous material that sinks from shallower into deeper water. A squid catches the snow with two filaments that it extends from its body.

Bioluminescence in Dinoflagellates

Dinoflagellates belong to a group of relatively simple organisms known as protists. Noctiluca scintillans, also known as sea sparkle, is a bioluminescent dinoflagellate. It lives near the ocean surface and feeds on plankton. The body of Noctiluca scintillans consists of just one cell, but the cell is large compared to the bodies of other unicellular organisms.

Organelles inside the cell of Noctiluca scintillans produce the bioluminescence. The light is produced when the dinoflagellates are mechanically stimulated, such as by the actions of nearby predators. One theory is that the bioluminescence has developed in order to distract the predators.

There are only almost no bioluminescent organisms in fresh water. So far only some insect larvae and one kind of limpet have been found to release light in fresh water.

Bioluminescence produced by a large population of dinoflagellates is often beautiful.
Bioluminescence produced by a large population of dinoflagellates is often beautiful. | Source

Fireflies or Lightning Bugs

Probably the best known example of land organisms that exhibit bioluminescence is the firefly, also called a lightning bug. Despite their name, fireflies are actually nocturnal beetles, not flies. About 2,000 different species exist. Their light-producing organs are located at the end of their bodies on the bottom of their abdomens.

Fireflies generally release their light in a series of flashes. The flashes help fireflies find mates. They may also protect the insect by warning potential predators that the fireflies taste bad. In addition, scientists have discovered that the flashes may be used to attract prey. Some female fireflies can imitate the light flash pattern of the female of another firefly species. The male of the other species is attracted by the mating signal and is eaten by the attracting female.

First firefly photo: Aspisoma sp., by gailhampshire, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia.org

Second photo: The undersurface of a New Brunswick firefly photographed with and without flash, by Emmanuelm, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia.org

How Do Fireflies Produce Light?

It’s not known for certain how the firefly is able to turn its light on and off, but it’s thought that the insect is able to control the quantity of oxygen inside the light organ. Oxygen availability may be determined by the presence of nitric oxide and mitochondria. The mitochondria produce energy for a cell by a process called cellular respiration. Oxygen is required for this process.

According to the theory, when nitric oxide is present, it inhibits the mitochondria in the light organs from using oxygen. The oxygen is therefore available for light production. When nitric oxide is absent, the mitochondria are no longer inhibited and use oxygen for cellular respiration. The oxygen is therefore unavailable for light production.

Fireflies in Action

Glow Worms

Glow worms also produce light by bioluminescence. They aren't worms, despite their name. The term “glow worm” refers to the bioluminescent, worm-like larvae of certain flies or beetles or to adult bioluminescent beetles that have a worm-like appearance.

In some places, the term "glow worm" is restricted to the female Lampyris noctiluca, which is a type of beetle. The female looks more like an elongated larva than an adult beetle and is unable to fly. She attracts the male, who can fly, with her light. The light is produced on the underside of the last three segments of the abdomen, as shown in the photo below. The light is emitted continuously, unlike the case in fire flies. Other stages of the insect's life cycle can also emit light, but the adult female's glow is the brightest.

Lampyris noctiluca
Lampyris noctiluca | Source

The body of a fungus consists of thread-like structures called hyphae. The hyphae are collectively known as a mycelium. Mushrooms are spore-bearing structures produced by the mycelium. The spores enable the fungus to reproduce.

Bioluminescent Fungi

Bioluminescent fungi produce a beautiful and often eerie glow that emanates from wood or a forested area. The glow is sometimes known as foxfire. The light is continually emitted—even during the day—but shows up best in the dark.

Fungi obtain food by secreting digestive enzymes into their food source and then absorbing the products of the digestion. Bioluminescent fungi produce light as they digest wood. In some species, only the cap or the gills of the mushroom release light, while in other species only the stem glows. Sometimes only the mycelium that produces the mushroom is bioluminescent.

As in most bioluminescent animals, bioluminescent fungi produce their light by the luciferin/luciferase system. The function of the light Is still a mystery. One theory is that the light attracts insects to aid in spore dispersal. Different species of fungi may glow for different reasons, however.

Panellus stipticus, or the bitter oyster fungus, is bioluminescent.
Panellus stipticus, or the bitter oyster fungus, is bioluminescent. | Source

Other Bioluminescent Organisms

Bioluminescence plays an important role in the lives of many creatures, but no bioluminescent plant, amphibian, reptile, bird, or mammal has yet been discovered. (According to biological classification, fungi aren't plants.) There may be surprises in store for us, however.

Researchers have recently discovered that the hawksbill sea turtle is biofluorescent. It absorbs blue light and releases red and green light. Fluorescence is the process is which light of one colour (or wavelength) is absorbed and then immediately emitted as light of a different colour. While light production by the hawksbill sea turtle isn't an example of bioluminescence, it does suggest that there is more to learn about light emission in nature. It's a fascinating phenomenon.

References

Information about bioluminescense in the ocean from Smithsonian's Ocean Portal

Facts about Noctiluca scintillans from the University of Tasmania, Australia

Bioluminescence in fireflies from Scientific American

Facts about glow worms and other bioluminescent creatures from the Wet Tropics Management Authority of Australia

Fungal production of light from the Smithsonian Magazine

© 2010 Linda Crampton

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    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      You're welcome!

    • adevwriting profile image

      Arun Dev 

      3 years ago from United Countries of the World

      Thank you!

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, adevwriting. Thank you very much for the comment and the kind request. The link would be nice if my hub is not already shown on your page. I'm happy to see that at the moment your hub is one of the related hubs on this page!

    • adevwriting profile image

      Arun Dev 

      3 years ago from United Countries of the World

      This hub is a great introduction to bioluminescence. Could I add a link to this hub on my hub about bioluminescent fungi.

      Thanks!

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much, adevwriting.

    • profile image

      adevwriting 

      3 years ago

      This is a good article!

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Mary. It's certainly okay to link your hub to mine, and I will link mine to yours if that's okay with you!

    • mary615 profile image

      Mary Hyatt 

      6 years ago from Florida

      Just to give you a "heads up"... My Puerto Rico vacation including the Bioluminescent Bay which was Day Two of my six day vacation will be published this next week (I hope). I still like to link this Hub into mine, OK?

      Thanks again. Goodnight.

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      That must have very disappointing, Mary. What a shame that you didn't get a chance to swim with the bioluminescent organisms. At least you were able to see them!

      Thank you very much for your comment.

    • mary615 profile image

      Mary Hyatt 

      6 years ago from Florida

      We were so disappointed because the info on the tour said people were allowed to get into the water with these, but then because someone got injured doing that, they no longer allow that. So, they scooped up a bucket of water from the bay and let us see them in the water!

      My best.

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much for the comment, the vote and the share, Mary. I'm looking forward to reading your hub about Bioluminescent Bay and linking to it - it sounds like it's going to be a very interesting hub! I'd love to visit the Bay - the idea of seeing millions of bioluminescent organisms is so exciting.

    • mary615 profile image

      Mary Hyatt 

      6 years ago from Florida

      This is such a fasinating Hub. I am writing about a trip I took to Puerto Rico. We went on a tour to a Bioluminescent Bay where we saw millions of these in the water. I'm going to write a Hub about that. I'll be back to ask if I can link this Hub into mine. But for now, I'll vote this UP, and will share.

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks for the visit and the comment, clothespinnedlove.

    • clothespinnedlove profile image

      clothespinnedlove 

      6 years ago from Wisconsin

      Great article!~

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      7 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks for your comment, Esmeowl12. I'll take a look at your hub.

    • profile image

      Esmeowl12 

      7 years ago

      Loved the article! Check out my hub on Synchronous Fireflies of the Smoky Mountains.

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      7 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you for the information, Rabid Puma. No, I hadn’t heard about "shrimpoluminescence", so I looked for information about the pistol shrimp and shrimpoluminescence on the Internet after I read your comment. Very interesting!!

    • Rabid Puma profile image

      Rabid Puma 

      7 years ago from Illinois

      Are you familiar with pistol shrimp? "Shrimpoluminescence" isn't actually bioluminescence, but you might find it interesting anyway.

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      7 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you so much, prasetio30!! Yes, nature does sometimes seem weird. Best wishes to you. I'm looking forward to reading more of your hubs.

    • prasetio30 profile image

      prasetio30 

      7 years ago from malang-indonesia

      Wow.... I can't say anything. This is new knowledge for me. I know some of them, but rest of them are really weird. This is a wonders of nature. As a biological lecturer, I thought you know everything about animals and plants. I am glad to know this from you. You open my eyes about what's going on out there. This time, I learn much from you. Thanks, Alicia. I give my vote special for you. Happy New Year!

      Blessing and hugs,

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      7 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Baileybear - Thanks for the comment. I find science fascinating too!

      A.A. Zavala - Thank you! I'm glad that you found the hub interesting.

    • A.A. Zavala profile image

      Augustine A Zavala 

      7 years ago from Texas

      Fascinating hub, thank you for sharing.

    • profile image

      Baileybear 

      7 years ago

      How very interesting. I really enjoy science, particularly when on something fascinating. I have a few ideas of science topics I'd like to write about.

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      7 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you for your comment, NJ's Ponderings!

    • NJ's Ponderings profile image

      NJ's Ponderings 

      7 years ago from Hickville, NY

      Very informative and well-written. Thanks :)

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