Bioluminescence is Badass (and Beautiful!)

Well, the title pretty much says it all.

If you don’t know what bioluminescence is, or don’t understand why it is beautiful, then you should familiarise yourself with it by taking a look at this slightly scary video narrated by the man himself: Sir David Attenborough. But we’ll give you a brief rundown to start.

Bioluminescence is the glowing or light given off by some living organisms. It occurs when luciferin (a group of light-emitting compounds) reacts with adenosine triphosphate (ATP) and oxygen, giving off light as a product. In reality, there are many types of luciferin out there (we don’t actually know how many), and different types are used by different organisms. Now, enough with the chemistry!


Bioluminescence in the sea generally uses blue light, as these wavelengths travel through the seawater better than other colours. On top of this, most organisms in the sea can only detect blue light; they cannot see the yellows and reds that we see.

However, some jellyfish and anemones emit green-tinted light, while there is a species of fish that shines red light to ‘spotlight’ prey. Only they can see the red light, so for this fish it is effectively like using night vision, or like Predator using infra-red to see prey. Yeah, Badass.


Want to see some more glowing water? Thank the plankton for just being plain awesome.


Turns out that plankton are not so boring, hey? In fact, a single cell of phytoplankton can emit enough light in 0.1 seconds to be visible to the human eye. But as it turns out, the brightness of the flash is related to how much sun there was that day. The brighter the sun, the brighter the flash.

But bioluminescence is not just restricted to the ocean.

Oh no. Next up are the lighted land-lubbers. Like the bioluminescent organisms found in the sea, glow-worms use luciferin, adenosine triphosphate (ATP) and oxygen in a reaction that gives off light as a byproduct. How they control the reaction is still not completely understood, but it is cool regardless. I’m not sure why they are called glow worms, but I do know that they look pretty cool:


But that’s not all! Finally, the last example of this amazing biological development probably had an influence on the ideation behind the moon Pandora in the film Avatar. There are bioluminescent fungi, but you can hear all about them from the abnormally drab guy that narrates in the video. Luckily the pictures stand up for themselves.


Seeing these videos makes me want to ride on a giant bioluminescent turtle in a sea full of bioluminescent plankton, coral, squid and fish.

About Tristan O'Brien

My passions are in environmental science and conservation, but scientific interests extend into other fields. At The Other Side of Science I work behind-the-scenes, but write when I feels creative! Read his wise words @TristanAvella

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