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Living Light


What is Bioluminescence?

Bioluminescence literally means “living light”. Its etymology is part Greek (bio) and part Latin (lumen). A natural phenomenon, bioluminescence occurs in a wide variety of organisms, although the majority of them are marine dwelling. Light is created through a chemical reaction that occurs within the organism. A luciferase catalyzes the oxidation of a luciferin resulting in an inactive oxyluciferin and light. Bioluminescence can be confused with fluorescence, but differs in that energy comes from chemical reactions, rather than a source of light (Haddock 2005).


This website was created as a project for and undergraduate Biology Program at Davidson College.
Last Updated 10.25.2005


Bioluminescence is found on land as well as within the sea. Terrestrially, it occurs most often in fungus growing on trees known as foxfire fungus or in insects such as the common firefly. In marine habitats, bioluminescence is found in many taxa including fish, algae, jellyfish, squid and others. Bioluminescent bacteria are prevalent in many places, and will sometimes serve in a symbiotic relationship with a larger organism.

In the mesopelagic zone, bioluminescence can be a particularly advantageous tool. Organisms that live in this zone must contend with large expanses of open water without shelter such as the seaweed, sand, rocks and coral reefs provided on the ocean floor. Bioluminescence taps into the element of down dwelling light from the sun during the day and the moon at night to provide camouflage from predators from below. Light emissions have also been found to be useful in attraction of prey, predator evasion and intraspecific communication (Jones 2003).