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Bioluminescence in Nature

Author: Isabella Ng

Editors: Jaylen Peng and Kevy Chen

Artist: Kyra Wang

Imagine walking on a beach shore on a warm summer night and noticing that as you look down, the water emits a light with every step! We know this natural phenomenon as bioluminescence. Ranging from a pretty nature light show to potential medicinal and technological applications, bioluminescence is a phenomenon to keep an eye out for. 

Bioluminescence is light emitted from living organisms because of biochemical reactions. Scientists believe that bioluminescence in organisms has given these creatures a biological advantage, providing visual communication, facilitating courtship, and sometimes attracting prey. Intense flashes of bioluminescence can startle and distract predators or even signal larger predators to come to the rescue (a tactic extraordinarily useful in the deep sea). Known as the “green bomber worm,” Swima bombiviridis are one of the many species from the polychaete family that release a bioluminescent bomb when in harm's way. While this phenomenon primarily relates to adaptations of deep underwater marine organisms, it appears in other places as well. For example, bioluminescence is found in fireflies, seen in the summertime, as their abdomens glow and light up the sky. 

The chemical reaction driving bioluminescence, or chemiluminescence, requires two compounds: luciferin and either luciferase or photoproteins. Several of nature’s “glowing” organisms produce luciferin-like Dinoflagellates, a plankton that glows bright blue-green. Other species turn to alternative sources, like absorption, to get their supply of luciferin. This can manifest as a symbiotic relationship, seen through marine organisms like squid and bioluminescent bacteria. Curious researchers have founded and fixed many bioluminescence solutions, attempting to discover more about them along the way. Through novel research, they have found that oxidation of luciferins, attained by evolution through unrelated means, catalyzes luciferases, releasing light along with countless unique combinations of metabolites. The discovery of these lab-observed luminescent reactions prompted in vivo and in vitro testing, advancing drug screenings, biomedical research, and various other modern technologies. 

Although the potential of bioluminescent tools has been gaining more traction with each passing year, the bioluminescence field is still shockingly understudied. Only nine of the forty luciferins thought to exist in nature have been found, and only seven of those have a discovered luciferase gene. These seven include D-luciferin, Cypridina luciferin, Coelenterazine, Fungal luciferin, X=OH Krill luciferin, X=H Dinoflagellate luciferin, and bacterial Luciferin. All these compounds have unique characteristics, as described in the brief overview of the bioluminescence review by Aubin Fleiss and Karen S. Sarkisyan. The chemiluminescence compounds are utilized for studies varying from immunoassays to cancer metabolism. A few notable highlights include the Cypridina luciferin, widely used in bioimaging and studies of circadian rhythms, or the Click beetle Pyrophorus plagiophthalamus luciferases, D-luciferin- dependant luciferases with tolerability of a range of pH’s, making it suitable for countless applications. With the hard work of researchers gathering insight into the photophysics, genetics, and ecology of bioluminescence, bioluminescence’s growing accessibility and promise toward advancements show new potential with each step. Its future is bright!

 

Citations:

Evers, Jeannie. Bioluminescence, 19 Oct. 2023,

Fleiss, Aubin, and Karen S Sarkisyan. “A Brief Review of Bioluminescent Systems (2019).”

Current Genetics, U.S. 

National Library of Medicine, Aug. 2019,

The Ocean Portal Team. “Bioluminescence.” Smithsonian Ocean, 11 May 2023,

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