bioluminescence (bĪˌōlōˌmĭnĕsˈəns) [key], production of light by living organisms. Organisms that are bioluminescent include certain fungi and bacteria that emit light continuously. The dinoflagellates, a group of marine algae, produce light only when disturbed. Bioluminescent animals include such organisms as ctenophores, annelid worms, mollusks, insects such as fireflies, and fish. The production of light in bioluminescent organisms results from the conversion of chemical energy to light energy. In fireflies, one type of a group of substances known collectively as luciferin combines with oxygen to form an oxyluciferin in an excited state, which quickly decays, emitting light as it does. The reaction is mediated by an enzyme, luciferase, which is normally bound to ATP (see adenosine triphosphate) in an inactive form. When the signal for the specialized bioluminescent cells to flash is receive, the luciferase is liberated from the ATP, causes the luciferin to oxidize, and then somehow recombines with ATP. Different organisms produce different bioluminescent substances. Bioluminescent fish are common in ocean depths; the light probably aids in species recognition in the darkness. Other animals seem to use luminescence in courtship and mating and to divert predators or attract prey.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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