Bioluminescence: shining light

Some of the most commented images of landscapes are the known as “seas of stars” of Jervis Bay (Australia) or the caves of stars in New Zealand. Places that glow in the dark. Is it a photomontage? In fact, it is a natural process whereby organisms that have the ability to shine with their own light.

A fascinating sea of stars in Jervis Bay (image: maxres) B. Waitomo Glowworms cave in New Zealand (image: Forevergone).


Although it seems a magical landscape of a fairy tale, this is not a magical process. The bioluminescence is a type of chemiluminescence (chemical production process of light) by which living organisms are capable of producing light. It must not be confused with fluorescence. The latter is characterized by the reception of aphoton of the medium which then is sent, while the bioluminescence is the production of lightby the same body.

Species of all kingdoms have this capability: bacteria, fungi, fish, insects etc. It is estimatedthat 90% of the species that live in the deepest regions of the ocean are capable ofproducing light. Marc Arenas talks about these fascinating organisms in his two articles “Voyage to thebottom os the deep sea I and II“. At ground level this number drops, yet we all know thecase of fireflies (family Lampyridae) and bioluminescent fungi (genus Amarillia, Mycena…).

mycena chlorophos_national geographic
Firefly (Fam Lampyridae) and fungus Mycena chlorophos. (Image: National Geographic)

The bioluminescence reaction is an oxidation that produces no heat. The organisms present a protein known as Luciferine which by the action of an enzyme luciferase, it is oxidized. In the next image we see a simple representation of this reaction. The luciferase allows Luciferine protein join to the oxygen. The resulting energy of this oxidation is emitted as light. To carry out this process organisms have to spend energy, consuming ATP (energy molecule used for the functioning of the cells).

The bioluminescence scheme (Image: the HuffPostworks)

There are two different types of bioluminescence: intracellular (the chemical reaction occurs in specialized bodies) and extracellular (molecules are synthesized in the body and are then expelled to the outside where the reaction occurs). In the case of the intracellular, we can find those organisms that synthesize the necessary molecules or those that have a symbiotic relationship with luminescent bacteria.


As we have said, the majority of organisms that have the ability to synthesize its own light live in dark places (caves, deep ocean…). These creatures have had to adapt to these harsh conditions. The bioluminescence is used for a wide variety of situations.

    • Intraspecific communication. Used for communication between organisms of the same species, e.g. for mating. In the article “How do insects communicate?” Irene tells of the different methods used, including bioluminescence, used by the fireflies.
    • Defense. There are certain living organisms that being disturbed or attacked produce light intracellularly or extracellularly to scare away the predator. A very interesting example is Vampire squid (Vampyrotethis infernalis) that spits out a bioluminescent mucus to fool predators.
    • Attracting the prey. Certain organisms possess organs producing light that attract their prey. As for example the belonging to the genus Lophiiformes.
    • Camouflage. In certain cases the bioluminescence is used for camouflage in the shadows of the ocean, it would be the case of lantershark.


Many microorganisms have the ability to produce their own light, and their intentions are not very different from the of higher organisms. In certain cases, the bioluminescence is used as a method of detoxification of the oxygen, i.e., a simple way to remove the excess oxygen. In others, used as a method of communication.

Some dinoflagellates, such as  Pyrodinium bahamense, have the ability to produce light when environmental conditions have been very favourable and its population has undergone exponential growth. At that time, when the water is moved the light reaction occurs as it would be the case of the famous beaches of stars.
Overgrowth of dinoflagellates which produce bioluminescence in the sea. (Image: Ies Rey Pelayo)
In the specialized organs of certain animals are strains of bacteria such as Vibrio fischeri or Photobacterium. These microorganisms receive nutrients from the animals and as a result of their metabolic activity,  produce light.
Image of the Hawaiian squid (Euprymna scolopes) and magnification of its light organ. Inside it, we can see bioluminescent bacteria Vibrio fischeri. (Image: Eric Stabb)
In many cases, the production of bacterial light is conditioned with population density, i.e. only produces light when there are many bacteria. This system of regulation is called quorum sensing.  But, what is it?


Microorganisms release inducing substances (favor a process) to the environment. When the concentration of these substances is very large due to a high population density, activate certain processes regulated genetically, as it would be the case of the bioluminescence.
This is a form of communication among microorganisms, since many processes depend on population density. In the case of Vibrio Fischeri, this only produces light when the population density has reached a certain size. When inducing molecules come in contact with bacteria, begins a genetic process that regulates the production of the enzyme luciferase and, therefore, the bioluminescence.
luxI picture
Image of the bioluminescence simplified genetic process regulated by quorum sensing. (Image: Cornell Institute for Biology teachers).


Biomimicry, science uses nature as a source of inspiration to create technologies that solve human problems, it has the adaptation of these mechanisms of lighting as next frontier. Do you imagine to replace the streetlights by bioluminescent trees?
Currently it is not possible yet, but there are large companies that focus their efforts on changing cities electricity by cheaper and renewable energy. Through the genetic modification of plants, it would introduce the gene responsible for the bioluminescence and these plants would be capable of producing light.
Recreation of the lighting of the future with bioluminescent plants. (Image: iluminet)
This form of energy, apart from reducing energy costs and pollution, is quick and simple to maintain. Only through a nutrient-rich gel and a colony of Vibrio fischeri could have a brilliant and continuous lighting. Is this the new way of lighting in our cities?


Nature is majestic and continues to give us lessons, you just have to learn to observe.


  • Brock, biología de los microorganismos. Michael T, Madigan. Ed. Pearson. (Spanish)
  • Ocean Today. NOAA.
  • The bioluminescence Web Page.
  • Cover Photo: Andy Hutchinson



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