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The Natural Wonder of Bioluminescence

Updated: Mar 5

Author: Brianna Hang

Editor: Katelyn Ma

Artist: Kaitlyn Stanton

Underneath the rolling waves of the ocean, electric blue light illuminates the seafloor as the night sky captures organisms’ luminescent beauty inside its black frame. Located in some parts of South California, Puerto Rico, Florida, etc, sea creatures like algae, squid, and jellyfish can create a chemical called “Bioluminescence” inside their bodies as a form of protection against predators or lure potential prey. Bioluminescence is the light produced from a chemical reaction inside a living organism, and it is a type of chemiluminescence, or light that is the product of a reaction. By studying the chemical components and adaptation advantages of these glowing organisms, researchers can use their genes to transform medical science and technology.

During the day time, some microorganisms display a reddish-brown pigmentation that gets concentrated near the surface of the water, earning the name “red tide”. During the nighttime, the movement of the waves and circadian rhythm triggers a neon blue glow which is made by bioluminescent organisms called dinoflagellates. For bioluminescence to begin, the chemical reaction needs a substrate and an enzyme to speed up the process. Luciferin is the substrate responsible for the color of the glow, but not all organisms cannot synthesize their own luciferin molecules. They would have to capture bioluminescent bacteria or other food sources that contain the substrate. In order to catalyze the reaction, the oxidized substrate gets attached to the active site of the enzyme, luciferase, and creates the product of oxyluciferin and light. Luciferase is very similar to chlorophyll in plants, the green pigment that captures light photons to drive photosynthesis, which can be used during the day time to gather more light. The enzyme is able to work at an efficient rate because the optimal pH level of the environment is around 6 when it turns dark, causing the enzyme to change its conformation or shape. Although the majority of these organisms have a luciferin-luciferase reaction, some organisms use photoproteins that require another element to form the reaction such as calcium ions to produce the light. Biologists discovered a protein called “Green Fluorescent Protein” (GFP) that can be studied by attaching it to other genes. The protein provides an easier way to monitor cellular activity such as breast cancer within the organism due to its fluorescent light. As a result, the compound can be extracted and modified to other living plants that could provide humans more light without having to rely on electricity or batteries.

Bioluminescent organisms have a flashing mechanism inside their body to startle any predators lurking nearby as well as creating a trail of light for some predators to hunt the organisms trying to consume the algae or plankton. Examples such as glowing zooplankton produce glowing goo as an attack mechanism against predators, so it can provide them enough time to run away. Anglerfishes are another example of bioluminescent organisms that create light at the end of its filament growth on its head to lure curious prey. Another predator is called Loosejaws that can emit a red bioluminescent light only visible to those of the same species, but most fishes can only see blue bioluminescent light. The predators are not visible to these fishes, but it can use the light produced to illuminate their environment and capture their prey more easily.

In summary, researchers are able to examine the chemical components of bioluminescence that can be used as a natural source of energy and cellular activity tracker that will transform medical science. From small phytoplankton to jellyfish, we can begin to explore the advantages of bioluminescence that will someday assist humans in everything from powering our streetlights to preventing breast cancer.



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Langlois, Jill. “How Studying Bioluminescent Creatures Is Transforming Medical Science.”, Smithsonian Institution, 5 Dec. 2019, News, Scripps. “Everything You Wanted to Know About Red Tides.” Scripps Institution of

Oceanography, Regents of the University of California, 28 Apr. 2020,

“Understanding the Natural Wonder of Bioluminescence.” Department for Environment and

Water, Government of South Australia, Apr. 2018,

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