While some bacteria, mushrooms, and invertebrates, as well as fish, are bioluminescent, other vertebrates and plants are not. The sporadic distribution and paucity of luminous forms calls for explanation, as does the fact that unrelated groups evolved completely different biochemical pathways to luminescence. The authors explore the hypothesis that many different luciferase systems arose in the early evolution of life because of their ability to remove oxygen, which was toxic to life when it first appeared on earth. As oxygen became abundant and bioluminescence was no longer adequate for oxygen removal, other antioxidant mechanisms evolved and most luminous species became extinct. Those light-emitting species that avoided extinction evolved uses with survival value for the light itself. Today’s luminous organisms use bioluminescence for defense from predators, for their own predatory purposes, or for communication in sexual courtship.
Bioluminescence was earlier viewed as a fascinating feature of the living world, but one whose study seemed unlikely to contribute in any practical way. Today, bioluminescence is no longer an esoteric area of research. Applications are numerous, ranging from the rapid detection of microbial contamination in beef and water, to finding the location of cancer cells, to working out circuitry in the brain.
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About the Author
J. Woodland Hastings (1927–2014) was Paul C. Mangelsdorf Research Professor of Natural Sciences in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology at Harvard University.
Table of Contents
Part I Five Different Bioluminescence Systems 7
1 A Marine Crustacean 9
Bioluminescent fishes as plagiarists and thieves
2 Jellyfish and Green Fluorescent Protein 21
A soft coral, a calcium-sensitive protein, and fish with related bioluminescence systems
3 Fireflies and Other Beetles 31
Luciferase-dependent bioluminescence color and rhythmic displays
4 Dinoflagellates and Krill 45
The sparkling clocks of the oceans and bioluminescent shrimp
5 Bacteria 61
Bacterial "communication," symbioses, and milky seas
Part II Diversity, Functions, and Evolutionary Origins of Bioluminescence 77
6 Short Accounts of Other Luminous Organisms 79
Having different and not well-characterized biochemistries
7 Bioluminescence in the Oceans 105
Anglerfish, dragonfish, and a Lake Baikal parenthesis
8 The Many Functions of Bioluminescence 119
Defense, offense, communication, and propagation
9 The Origins and Evolution of Bioluminescence 125
How did luciferases originate?
Part III Bookends 133
10 Applications 135
Tools for biology, medicine, and public health
11 How Does Life Make Light? 147
"Excited molecules" and bioluminescence
Further Reading 169
Illustration Credits 177