Let's Talk About: Bioluminescence or living light

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Darkness is one of the most significant challenges with which humans have learned to cope. Our ingenuity has produced tools from fire to electricity that have helped us find nourishment and avoid danger when light is absent. But what about wildlife that cannot rely on technology to navigate darkness? Oftentimes, they create their own light through a chemical process within their bodies -- a phenomenon known as bioluminescence.

Darkness is one of the most significant challenges with which humans have learned to cope. Our ingenuity has produced tools from fire to electricity that have helped us find nourishment and avoid danger when light is absent. But what about wildlife that cannot rely on technology to navigate darkness? Oftentimes, they create their own light through a chemical process within their bodies -- a phenomenon known as bioluminescence.

Bioluminescence is particularly common among marine life, including certain types of fish, algae and crustaceans. Theirs is one of the harshest environments on Earth, where darkness increases with depth until culminating in what seems like a watery abyss. But thousands of meters below the sea surface, the water teems with life illuminating the blackness with as much graceful splendor as fireflies at night.

Organisms are considered bioluminescent if they produce light through a chemical reaction resulting from the food they eat. Proteins called luciferins store excited electrons within the organism until the bonds between the electrons are broken by enzymes called luciferases. This releases energy in the form of photons or particle-sized packets of light.

Observation suggests that bioluminescent creatures have different uses for their light such as eluding predators, luring prey and communicating between members of the same species.

One bioluminescent deep-sea dweller is the anglerfish, whose grotesque body is punctuated by a fleshy growth protruding from its head called an esca from which a light shines to help attract prey. Another of the sea's most spectacular light shows occurs at the surface where phytoplankton, a type of algae, emit a soft, blue glow when disturbed by movement in the water.

This “living light” is awe-inspiring, not just because of its beauty but also because it is as natural as digestion to the creatures that use it. It makes one wonder what our world would be like if humans were bioluminescent.

 


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