Deep in the ocean, in the absence of penetrable sunlight, nature produces a spectacular light show. The glowing orbs seemingly dance in the night, uniting to form an awe-inspiring rainbow of greens, blues, and yellows. To cope with darkness, we turn on a flashlight or light a candle; deep-sea marine life evolved their own strategy: bioluminescence.
Bioluminescence is the process by which organisms use chemicals within their bodies to produce light. The light is produced when the chemical luciferin interacts with luciferase (an enzyme that speeds up the reaction) in the presence of oxygen (and is often meditated by other cofactors).
It is estimated that nearly ninety percent of deep-sea marine life illuminate themselves in one form or another. Though bioluminescence occurs far less frequently on land, many of us have had such interactions with terrestrial organisms, including fireflies and glow warms.
Depending on the species, some organisms glow continuously, while others flash light on and off in response to an external stimuli; all however use bioluminescence as an adaptive strategy. Whether using light to lure an unsuspecting prey, to find a suitable mate, to repulse a prey, or to camouflage oneself by counter-illumination, bioluminescence helps organisms survive and reproduce.
Bioluminescent organisms will be explored in the exciting new exhibition Creatures of Light: Nature’s Bioluminescence, which opens at the American Museum of Natural History on March 31, 2012.