Living Light

When I was little, most kids marked the beginning of summer by the end of school. I always felt summer arrived with the fireflies. They were a special kind of magic of the same brand as heat lightning. Now as an adult, after a very long day, I am still working on this article as my husband streams the first season “Once Upon  Time.” The last episode was about dreamers and love. A dwarf was invited out on a date with a fairy to Firefly Hill. I think the magic of fireflies transcends age. Even when you know the science behind a thing, sometimes it remains as wondrous.

Bioluminescence is a form of luminescence, or “cold light” emission by living organisms; less than 20% of the light generates thermal radiation. It should not be confused with iridescence, structural coloration, phosphorescence.

By etymology, bioluminescence is a hybrid word, originating from the Greekbios for “living” and the Latinlumen “light”.

Bioluminescence is a form of chemiluminescence where light energy is released by a chemical reaction. Fireflies, anglerfish, and other creatures produce the chemicals luciferin (a pigment) and luciferase (an enzyme).[4] The luciferin reacts with oxygen to create light. The luciferase acts as a catalyst to speed up the reaction, which is sometimes mediated by cofactors such as calcium ions or ATP. The chemical reaction can occur either inside or outside the cell. In bacteria, the expression of genes related to bioluminescence is controlled by an operon called the Lux operon (Bioluminscence, Wikipedia)

Why do organisms glow? (complete with a cool video)

How Bioluminescense Works ( a several page How Stuff Works Article with several visual aids)

How Light Works (a several page How Stuff Works Article that discusses many different kinds of light)

Many groups of animals bioluminesce. Various insects produce light-emissions. Some fungi and bacteria also possess this ability. The Milky seas effect is caused by bacteria in the sea and can sometimes be viewed from space. The majority of creatures that are bioluminescent live in the open sea, especially the deep sea.

It must have been during one of those magical summer breaks the first encountered the anglerfish in a deep sea documentary. It might have been something along the lines of this or this or this. The image of that fish left such an impression. It looked sinister and somehow lonely. The strangest thing was not the big gaping mouth that had such disproportionate rows of teeth. There is a long filament that shoots off of the fish’s spine. For the deep sea varieties, the ones featured on that documentary, these filaments not only dangle but they also emit cold light; they are bioluminescent.

With a greater understanding of the how and the why behind the light, I wondered if any research was being done into bioluminescence. It is! Check out this article on oil spill clean-up, Could Color-Coded Bacteria Help Spot Oil Spills?  Also, Lu Fong has a great article on Discovery’s, How Do Scientists Use Bioluminescence in Research? The article summarizes several areas of research and includes links to articles about the projects themselves.

Between my last animal camo article and this one, I tried to think of my own applications of bioluminescence in fiction. I only came up with lighting caves with bioluminescent bacterial culture containers.  As it turns out in something I read today, dried fish skins were used for this purpose ages ago. Neat. Can you think of a place for bioluminescense in your fiction?



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