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Bioluminescence: Living Lights, Lights for Living

Thérèse Wilson
J. Woodland Hastings
Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: Harvard University Press
Pages: 176
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    Bioluminescence is everywhere on earth—most of all in the ocean, from angler fish in the depths to flashing dinoflagellates at the surface. Wilson and Hastings explore the natural history, evolution, and biochemistry of the diverse array of organisms that emit light and offer an evolutionary explanation for their sporadic distribution and rarity.

    eISBN: 978-0-674-06802-5
    Subjects: Biological Sciences, Chemistry

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-ix)
    (pp. 1-6)

    For many of us, the only awareness of bioluminescence—the emission of light by living organisms—is the sight of fireflies. For others, the magic moment is a “phosphorescent sea,” where myriads of microscopic sources emit flashes of light when waves or our steps on wet sand stir the water (Figure I.1). In truth, bioluminescence is everywhere on earth, especially in the oceans, from the depths where no sunlight penetrates to the surface, where it powers photosynthesis. Emission of light is a function that was invented, reinvented for different reasons, with different chemistries and in different species, and perhaps lost...


    • chapter one A MARINE CRUSTACEAN Bioluminescent Fishes as Plagiarists and Thieves
      (pp. 9-19)

      Vargula hilgendorfii (or Cypridina hilgendorfii, as it used to be called) is a small crustacean in the family Cypridinidae* that deserves pride of place in this book for the textbook simplicity of its bioluminescence mechanism. It is about 2 to 3 mm in diameter, protected by a hard shell (Figure 1.1A), and abundant in shallow waters along the southern coast of Japan, as well as in many other areas.

      Buried in the sand during the day, it becomes an active scavenger at night, escaping potential predators by squirting a bright blue luminescent puff, which may startle or temporarily blind them,...

    • chapter two JELLYFISH AND GREEN FLUORESCENT PROTEIN A Soft Coral, A Calcium-Sensitive Protein, and Fish With Related Bioluminescence Systems
      (pp. 21-29)

      From the cypridinid crustacean Vargula, we turn to the soft coral Renilla reniformis, a coelenterate often called the sea-pansy, which is found in the North Atlantic coastal waters from North Carolina to Florida (Figure 2.1). Renilla emits its luminescence from an array of cellular point sources (called photocytes) within its tissues. When touched, a wave of light bursts through the colony, scaring predators.

      Remarkably, the luciferin of Renilla, called coelenterazine, shares with cypridinid luciferin the critical imidazopyrazinone structure (in red), albeit with different substituents (Figure 2.2).

      It can therefore be safely bet that the light-generating reactions of cypridinid and Renilla...

    • chapter three FIREFLIES AND OTHER BEETLES Luciferase-Dependent Bioluminescence Color and Rhythmic Displays
      (pp. 31-43)

      When we talk of bioluminescence, most of us think of fireflies such as Photinus pyralis (Figure 3.1). Fireflies (Lampyridae) are not flies; they are beetles (Coleoptera). Other beetles, such as the railroad worms (Phengodidae), which have both red and green lanterns, and the click beetles (Elateridae) are equally beautiful and in some ways even more intriguing.

      All bioluminescent beetles—and there are thousands of species—are believed to use the same (beetle) luciferin (Figure 3.2) and closely related luciferases. All are also believed to emit light as the result of the same two-step reaction involving adenosine triphosphate (ATP),* even though...

    • chapter four DINOFLAGELLATES AND KRILL The Sparkling Clocks of the Oceans and Bioluminescent Shrimp
      (pp. 45-59)

      The small unicellular dinoflagellates, which occur ubiquitously in the oceans, are responsible for the beautiful flashes that occur when seawater is disturbed at night, the bioluminescence of the ocean. The chemistry of their bioluminescence is altogether different from the other major systems. But here again, as in the cases of the small crustacean of Chapter 1 and of the jellyfish of Chapter 2, a bioluminescence system similar to that of the dinoflagellates is also found in a phylogenetically remote group, shrimps known collectively as krill.

      Many of us have seen, at one time or another, a sea sparkling with flashes...

    • chapter five BACTERIA Bacterial “Communication,” Symbioses, and Milky Seas
      (pp. 61-76)

      If many fishes have co-opted the light-emitting systems of cypridinids and coelenterates, many other ocean denizens, as well as notable terrestrial species, acquire their bioluminescence by hosting luminescent bacteria. In doing so, they acquire a complete luminous system—luciferin, luciferase, and all the trimmings—and enter into a two-way, very specific symbiotic relationship between hosts and guests, with costs and benefits to both.

      Luminescent bacteria (Figure 5.1) are about a thousand times smaller and also simpler than Vargula and cells of other eukaryotes. Bacterial DNA is in a tangle, not in a nucleus surrounded by a membrane, and not organized...


    • [part two Introduction]
      (pp. 77-78)

      The field of bioluminescence is, in many ways, a curio shop of folk art, full of beautiful light works of still mysterious origin. In the course of Part I of this book, where the focus was on the best-understood bioluminescence systems, we allowed ourselves digressions to tell of animals that have co-opted such model systems. The little squid Euprymna scolopes, with its ventral pouch full of luminescent bacteria, is one example. This is truly a fascinating story, with exciting new developments around the corner.

      How the flashlight fish Photoblepharon maintains its culture of luminous bacteria in the pouches under the...

    • chapter six SHORT ACCOUNTS OF OTHER LUMINOUS ORGANISMS Having different and not well-characterized biochemistries
      (pp. 79-103)

      After the Six-Day Arab–Israeli War in 1967, soldiers on patrol along the east coast of the Sinai Peninsula noticed spots of light close to shore in the Gulf of Aqaba (Figure 6.1). Thinking it might be scuba divers from Saudi Arabia, just across the Gulf, they ordered depth bombs to be dropped, only to see hundreds of small stunned fish come to the surface, with bright light emitted from organs beneath their eyes.

      At that time there were no paved roads, buildings, or artificial lights in the Sinai. It may have had fewer inhabitants—most were Bedouin nomads with...

    • chapter seven BIOLUMINESCENCE IN THE OCEANS Anglerfish, Dragonfish, and a Lake Baikal Parenthesis
      (pp. 105-118)

      Far away from the beaches, and far down from waves and boats, the deep oceans are forbidding places, places of darkness at noon and numbing cold in all seasons. They are also the vastest spaces on earth; 70 percent of the earth’s surface is covered by oceans, 60 percent by deep oceans, a trillion cubic kilometers inhabited by a sparse fauna, a world under tremendous pressure and so dark that no green plant can inhabit it.

      It is customary to divide the oceans in vertical zones (Figure 7.1). The upper 200m of the oceans, the so-called epipelagic zone, is full...

    • chapter eight THE MANY FUNCTIONS OF BIOLUMINESCENCE Defence, Offense, Communication, and Propagation
      (pp. 119-124)

      Any reader reaching this point will have already concluded that the present-day functions of bioluminescence are many and diverse. Some seem obvious, even if not proven, and most have counterparts in devices or techniques used by man. For example, man used light signals to communicate long before it was known that fireflies do. Lanterns in the tower of Old North Church in Boston informed Paul Revere about the invading English at the start of the American Revolution: “One (lantern) if by land; two if by sea” in the celebrated Longfellow poem.

      But consider camouflage. Adjusting the pattern and coloration of...

    • chapter nine THE ORGINS AND EVOLUTION OF BIOLUMINESCENCE How Did Luciferases Originate?
      (pp. 125-132)

      There are many different luciferin/luciferase systems, widely distributed phylogenetically. Why, when, and how did this happen? An exciting hypothesis for the origin of luciferase genes was first proposed some 50 years ago, and although not pursued at the time, has been revived in various forms since. It was based on the realization that oxygen, which did not appear in significant amounts until about 2400 Mya (million years ago), well after primitive life was already established, would have been toxic for cells. Thus, luciferases and their luciferin substrates, with the ability to utilize oxygen reduce its level in cells, could have...


    • chapter ten APPLICATIONS Tools for Biology, Medicine, and Public Health
      (pp. 135-146)

      Carolus Vintimillia of Sicily, who first proposed, in 1647, that fire-flies flash for sex, would be surprised to hear that it is now done for money–big money. Today, several important applications of bioluminescence are now commercialized. But many, many fireflies, collected by children for pennies (Figure 10.1) had to be sacrificed to carry out the basic research needed to demonstrate the capability of their luciferase/luciferin to generate light in the presence of ATP, thus making available a most sensitive test for ATP. Along parallel lines, the arduous work of deciphering the light emission pathway of coelenterates, which similarly required...

    • chapter eleven HOW DOES LIFE MAKE LIGHT? “Excited Molecules” and Bioluminescence
      (pp. 147-162)

      Dyes may fade in the sun, because light and air alters their chemical structures. Conversely, chemical reactions can produce light in a process known as chemiluminescence, or as bioluminescence if a living organism participates in the process. The challenge is to identify, in a bioluminescent organism, not only the specific molecular species that emit the photons but also the chemical and enzymatic processes by which such molecules acquire the energy needed for emission. A clue to our understanding of bioluminescence is that photons of blue, green, or yellow light carry amounts of energy comparable to those that bind atoms in...

    (pp. 163-168)
    (pp. 169-176)
    (pp. 177-180)
  11. INDEX
    (pp. 181-185)