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Let there be light - bioluminescence & evolution


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Dec 3, 2017
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I've been aware of the phenomenon of bioluminescence since I was a little kid catching fireflies in a bottle to light up my room at night. With my background in chemistry & biology, I recently got very interested in this topic & its bearing on evolution.

Biolominescence occurs in certain bacteria, fungi, many forms of marine invertebrates like brittle stars, insects like fireflies & beetles, and in metazoans (animals with backbones) like fish. Simply put, an enzyme called luciferase reacts with oxygen & acts on an organic molecule known as a substrate (called luciferin) to create light of a specific color (wavelength). One would think that such an amazing system would have descended from a common ancestor but that is not the case. Most species that have this ability developed it on their own. The luciferase in bacteria is completely different from the luciferase found in more complex animals, as are the luciferins. There seems to be some force in Nature that is driving marine life to produce light.

Animals in the ocean use light for many activities: mating, hunting, defense, etc.

The first bacteria were anaerobes. When oxygen levels started to rise as a result of photosynthesis, anaerobic bacteria had to develop a metabolic system that used up the oxygen as it was toxic to them. It just happened that that system produced light.

See https://ocean.si.edu/ocean-life/fish/bioluminescence
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