Bioluminescence: Natures Bling

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Bioluminescence is the light (glow) that many forms of life produce, such as fireflies, jellyfish, phytoplankton, ferns and mushrooms to mention some. Bioluminescence occurs in terrestrial and marine vertebrates & invertebrates, microorganisms including some bacteria also present this characteristic.

This kind of light does not produce any heat, that’s why it’s also called “cold light”, only less than 20% generates a minimal form of thermal radiation.

However bioluminescence it is not the same thing as iridescence, structural coloration or phosphorescence.

Iridescence:is the property of certain surfaces that appear to change colour as the angle of view or the angle of illumination changes.

Structural coloration: is the production of colour by microscopically structured surfaces, sometimes also called schemochromes, fine enough to interfere with visible light, sometimes in combination with pigments: for example, peacock tail feathers are pigmented brown, but their structure makes them appear blue, turquoise, and green, and often they appear iridescent

 Phosphorescence is a specific type of photoluminescence related to fluorescence. Unlike fluorescence, a phosphorescent material does not immediately re-emit the radiation it absorbs.

Plants and other life forms use bioluminescence to attract prey, to camouflage themselves, as a defense mechanism against predators, for attracting mates and as a form of communication.


What produces bioluminescence?

Researchers have found that this light is produced by a chemical reaction within a living organism, we only see the result of this chemical reaction when light is produced. It can occur externally or internally of animals and plants.

The chemical reaction that results in bioluminescence requires two unique chemicals: luciferin and either luciferase or photoprotein. Luciferin is the compound that actually produces light.

The bioluminescent color (yellow in fireflies, greenish in lanternfish) is a result of the arrangement of luciferin molecules. How cool is that?!

However some bioluminescent organisms do not synthesize luciferin. They host other organisms such as bacteria and on a symbiotic relationship they help each other survive.  Many marine animals, such as squid, house bioluminescent bacteria in their light organs.

Apparently Humboldt was the first scientist to stimulate a luminous animal electrically (a medusa in 1799). And even if he did not make a significant conclusion for the cause of its glow, he did establish the importance of electricity as a method of excitation. (Sorry jellyfish)

One of my favourite bioluminescent creatures are the dinoflagellates, a tiny type of plankton that lives in enormous colonies in the ocean. This marine organisms can sometimes cause the surface of the ocean to sparkle at night.


Humboldt was the first scientist (that we know of) to make a description of a luminous green Noctiluca containing flagellate parasites during his voyage to the equinoctial regions of America (1799-1804).

Around 1802 Humboldt wrote:

The luminous animals of the ocean appear, from these conjectures, to prove the existence of a magneto-electric light-generating vital process in other classes of animals besides fishes, insects, mollusca, and acalephae. Is the secretion of the luminous fluid which is effused in some animalcules, and which continues to shine for a long period without further influence of the living organism merely the consequence of the first electric discharge, or is it simply dependent on chemical composition?

The luminosity of insects surrounded by air assuredly depends on physiological causes different from those which give rise to a luminous condition in aquatic animals, fishes. Medusae, and Infusoria. The small Infusoria of the ocean, being surrounded by strata of salt-water which constitutes a powerful conducting medium, must be capable of an enormous electric tension of their flashing organs to enable them to shine so vividly in the water.

(A. von Humboldt, Views of nature, trans, by E. C. Ottd and H. G. Bohn, 248-249, London, George Bell & Sons, 1875)

(Harvey, E. Newton A history of luminescence from the earliest times until 1900 (1957). Philadelphia, American Philosophical Society. 1957)


Noctiluca scintillans is a humble member of the Noctilucales, these marine creatures are also known as “sea sparkles”. The bioluminescence they produce is similar to a flash.

This phytoplanktonthrives when the environmental conditions such as well-mixed nutrient-rich waters and seasonal circulation offer a perfect environment for the N. scintillans to grow in large colonies.

The glowing effect that phytoplankton produces in the ocean is often called “milky seas” mareel, or mar de ardora.

Click on the image to see more pictures of phytoplankton.



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