Luciferin Compound Adds a Glowing Touch


The natural phenomena of Bioluminescent waves, or glowing waves, have a lot in common with a firefly, and highlighter. They all consist of the same compound to emit light but unlike bioluminescent waves, a highlighter can’t glow in the dark and fireflies are not constantly glowing, so where do their paths diverge?

Dinoflagellates are a single cell; plankton-like bioluminescent organisms about 5 to 2000 micrometers in size. They can be found everywhere in the ocean but often when temperatures get warm the plankton group together and increase in numbers at an accelerated pace. The “bloom” or “decay” is thought to taint the waters red, but the exact reason why the tide looks red during the day is not completely understood. Many red tides show up all over but not all glow. The glowing comes from a chemical reaction involving enzyme luciferase and (oxygen-added) compound Luciferin, which is produced by the plankton. Their interaction creates oxyluciferin, or produces light. This chemical reaction that is easily visible at night caused by a disturbance in the waves, is thought to be a defense mechanism to scare away predators or attract something to eat the plankton’s predator. Like Dinoflagellates, Fireflies’ bioluminescent colors are because of the Luciferin molecules arrangement. Fireflies combine oxygen, calcium, adenosine triphosphate to Luciferase and Luciferin to create a controlled glow. Luciferin is heat resistant so both fireflies and bioluminescent waves produce “cold light” instead of heating up like a light bulb. 

Most bioluminescent reactions are due to luciferin and luciferase, however some do not demand for an enzyme, in this case Luciferase.  Instead they consist of the chemical photoprotein, which intermix with luciferins, oxygen and often an ion from the element calcium. This creates the same light but is fluorescence instead of a bioluminescence. Meaning there is no chemical reaction and instead of creating light, in fluorescence it absorbs and re-emits active light. Such as how a highlighter works, if there is no active light, there is no glow. 

In all three of these cases, Luciferin is actually the compound that produces light, known as the substrate. Some bioluminescent organisms produce Luciferin by themselves while others, like midshipman fish absorb or consume it through prey. In the deep ocean where sunlight is dim or not present more than 90% of animals are thought to be luminescent, which help with luring prey and communication.

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