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Bioluminescence: The Irresistible Glow of Nature


Bioluminescence is one of the little-known wonders of the world. It is utterly mesmerising. Bioluminescence refers to the ability of certain living organisms to create light. These organisms can turn parts of their body into glowsticks. Most of the time, bioluminescence improves a living thing’s chances of survival. The most common example is the fireflies (Photinus pyralis), their ability to glow green helps it attract a mate. Its just one of the many things that can glow.


The railroad worm (Phrixothrix hirtus), can light up its body into two colours- red and green. The flashing lights keep these worms safe from predators.

Railroad Worm

The deep-sea shrimp (Acanthephydra purpurea) is also another example. When it feels threatened, it spews a cloud of glowing goo from its mouth. This in turn attracts bigger predators who want to eat the shrimp’s attacker!

Deep-sea shrimp

Another one is an Anglerfish, the glowing bait on top of its head comes from a part of the skin, called the Esca. The Esca holds bioluminescent bacteria. The anglerfish can’t glow by itself, instead it holds a sack of glowing bacteria inside the esca.


The fire flies can glow enthrallingly. The chemistry behind this is that, inside its lantern there are two chemicals, a Luciferin and a Luciferase. When the luciferase and luciferin mix together in the presence of oxygen and ATP, the chemical reaction formed gives off the energy in the form of light.

Scientists have identified how fireflies creates its luciferase and luciferin, they used genetic engineering to make this light producing reaction occur inside other living things that can’t glow.

They tried inserting the genes, which are the instructions for a cell to create firefly luciferase and luciferin into a tobacco plant. These plants could be then lit up like a Christmas tree.

The beauty of bioluminescence, unlike from other sources of light is that it is not all hot.

Recently bioengineers are trying to develop bioluminescent trees because bioluminescent reaction use replenishable resources. Thus, they don’t fade out when the chemicals inside gets used up. If these are planted on the highways, they could light the way by only using oxygen and other freely available resources to run. This is an advantage for nature, which can help our planet live longer.

Another phenomenon of bioluminescence is the ‘Sea Sparkle’. Here a bioluminescent alga, which is a dinoflagellate called Noctiluca, causes sea sparkle. Noctiluca are so small that thousands of them can fit in a single drop of water. Scientists think that Noctiluca flashes to startle or scare away its predators. The bioluminescence might also attract bigger predators to eat Noctiluca’s predators, just like a burglar alarm that alerts the police to come to someone’s house to catch a robber.

Bioluminescent algae are known for producing a vivid flash of blue-green light whenever their surroundings are disturbed, usually by something as simple as the water around them being in motion. Thus, helping it attract a mate. Some of these algae can be very toxic. The “Blue Tears” in the East China Sea are caused by these toxic algae. These blue tears can poison sea life, from fish to sea turtles. The bloom can also make humans sick. Here the dinoflagellates aren’t responsible for the toxicity, but it is due to their choice of food. As they eat, they release ammonia and other chemicals that poison the water around them. Not only that, but these creatures breathe oxygen until there’s none left in the surrounding waters. Thus, oxygen in the water is so low that many animals die.

Sea sparkle

Bioluminescent Waves is a natural phenomenon that causes the waves to glow neon blue. It’s caused by an algae blooms called the ‘Red Tide’. They are mostly seen in Southern California beaches from as far north as Santa Barbara, Malibu, Venice Beach all the way down to San Diego and Mexico. This means that when you are watching the magical glow of these bioluminescent waves, what you are really seeing is millions of individual plankton emitting a series of rapid single flashes, which makes the whole spectacle even more captivating.

Bioluminescent waves

Having evolved independently dozens of times, bioluminescence provides living organisms with a tangible advantage in certain ecological contexts. The ability to emit light in darkness has been observed in about 10,000 species from 800 genera. The exact benefit of light emission in various environments is far from being clear for a number of species, however, in most cases bioluminescence is believed to serve the purpose of visual communication to scare off predators, attract prey or in courtship behavior.

With new insights into the fields of photo-physics, genetics and ecology of bioluminescence being made year by year, engineering new light-emitting and light-communicating living systems is becoming more accessible than ever before, leading to more scientific discoveries and researches for the betterment of mankind.

- written by Rose Raj

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