Dictionary Definition

bioluminescence n : luminescence produced by physiological processes (as in the firefly)

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. In the context of "biology|biochemistry": The emission of light by a living organism (such as a firefly).

Related terms


emission of light by a living organism

Extensive Definition

Bioluminescence''' is the production and emission of light by a living organism as the result of a chemical reaction during which chemical energy is converted to light energy. Its name is a hybrid word, originating from the Greek bios for "living" and the Latin lumen "light". Bioluminescence may be generated by symbiotic organisms carried within larger organisms. Adenosine triphosphate (ATP) is involved in most instances. 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. Bioluminescence has appeared independently several times (up to 30 or more) during evolution.

Characteristics of the phenomenon

Adaptations for bioluminescence

There are five main accepted theories for the evolution of bioluminescent traits:


details more Camouflage


Bioluminescence is used as a lure to attract prey by several deep sea fish such as the anglerfish. A dangling appendage that extends from the head of the fish attracts small animals to within striking distance of the fish. Some fish, however, use a non-bioluminescent lure.
The cookiecutter shark uses bioluminescence for camouflage, but a small patch on its underbelly remains dark and appears as a small fish to large predatory fish like tuna and mackerel. When these fish try to consume the "small fish", they are eaten by the shark.
Dinoflagellates have an interesting twist on this mechanism. When a predator of plankton is sensed through motion in the water, the dinoflagellate luminesces. This in turn attracts even larger predators which will consume the would-be predator of the dinoflagellate.
The attraction of mates is another proposed mechanism of bioluminescent action. This is seen actively in fireflies, which use periodic flashing in their abdomens to attract mates in the mating season. In the marine environment this has only been well-documented in certain small crustaceans called ostracod. It has been suggested that pheromones may be used for long-distance communication, and bioluminescent used at close range to "home in" on the target.


Certain squid and small crustaceans use bioluminescent chemical mixtures or bioluminescent bacterial slurries in the same way as many squid use ink. A cloud of luminescence is expelled, confusing or repelling a potential predator while the squid or crustacean escapes to safety. Every species of firefly has larvae that glow to repel predators.


Bioluminescence is thought to play a direct role in communication between bacteria (see quorum sensing). It promotes the symbiotic induction of bacteria into host species, and may play a role in colony aggregation.


While most marine bioluminescence is green to blue, the Black Dragonfish produces a red glow. This adaptation allows the fish to see red-pigmented prey, which are normally invisible in the deep ocean environment where red light has been filtered out by the water column.


Bioluminescent organisms are a target for many areas of research. Luciferase systems are widely used in the field of genetic engineering as reporter genes. Luciferase systems have also been harnessed for biomedical research using bioluminescence imaging.
Vibrio symbiosis with numerous marine invertebrates and fish, namely the Hawaiian Bobtail Squid (Euprymna scolopes), are key experimental model for symbiosis, quorum sensing, and bioluminescence.
The structure of photophores, the light producing organs in bioluminescent organisms, are being investigated by industrial designers.
Some proposed applications of engineered bioluminescence include:
  • Christmas trees that do not need lights, reducing danger from electrical fires
  • glowing trees to line highways to save government electricity bills
  • agricultural crops and domestic plants that luminesce when they need watering
  • new methods for detecting bacterial contamination of meats and other foods
  • bio-identifiers for escaped convicts and mental patients
  • detecting bacterial species in suspicious corpses
  • novelty pets that bioluminesce (rabbits, mice, fish etc.)

Organisms that bioluminesce

All cells produce some form of bioluminescence within the electromagnetic spectrum, but most are neither visible nor noticeable to the naked eye. Every organism's bioluminescence is unique in wavelength, duration, timing and regularity of flashes. Below follows a list of organisms which have been observed to have visible bioluminescence.

Terrestrial organisms

bioluminescence in Bengali: জীব দ্যুতি
bioluminescence in Czech: Bioluminiscence
bioluminescence in German: Biolumineszenz
bioluminescence in Spanish: Bioluminiscencia
bioluminescence in Esperanto: Lumantaj bestoj
bioluminescence in French: Bioluminescence
bioluminescence in Korean: 생물 발광
bioluminescence in Icelandic: Lífljómun
bioluminescence in Italian: Bioluminescenza
bioluminescence in Hebrew: ביולומינסנציה
bioluminescence in Macedonian: Биолуминисценција
bioluminescence in Dutch: Bioluminescentie
bioluminescence in Norwegian: Bioluminescens
bioluminescence in Norwegian Nynorsk: Bioluminescens
bioluminescence in Polish: Bioluminescencja
bioluminescence in Portuguese: Bioluminescência
bioluminescence in Russian: Биолюминесценция
bioluminescence in Simple English: Bioluminescence
bioluminescence in Slovenian: Bioluminiscenca
bioluminescence in Finnish: Bioluminesenssi
bioluminescence in Swedish: Mareld
bioluminescence in Tajik: Биолюминесентсия
bioluminescence in Turkish: Biyoluminesans
bioluminescence in Ukrainian: Біолюмінесценція
bioluminescence in Vlaams: Viezn
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