What is Bioluminescence?

Bioluminescence, literally ‘living light’ is the production of visible light by living creatures. This amazing phenomenon has evolved in a wide variety of fascinating organisms with many different purposes. It allows fireflies to find a mate, and anglerfish and glow worms to lure food, to name just a few.

Here’s a short animation about how and why the Hawaiian bobtail squid glows:

So how do they do it?

Bioluminescence is the by-product of a chemical reaction. The chemicals involved are known as luciferins and luciferases, and the reactions require oxygen and usually other cofactors like ATP. Luciferin and luciferase are just generic terms and the chemicals themselves vary. At last count there were at least five different systems, and plenty of bioluminescent organisms for which the luciferases/luciferins are still unknown.

What’s all this got to do with scientific research?

Bioluminescence is exploited by scientists in all manner of ways. Understanding the systems and knowing many of the genes, scientists are able to use light to study the body clocks of plants and animals, and to monitor the cleanliness of hospitals and space shuttles!

Here at the Bioluminescent Superbugs Lab, we put the bioluminescence genes into nasty bacteria, using the light as a quick and easy way to tell where our bacteria are, how many there are and whether they are dead or alive. We apply this to all sorts of problems, from finding new antibiotics to studying how bacteria evolve to cause disease.