Bioluminescence in Plants, Fungi & Bacteria

Instructor: Danielle Haak

Danielle has a PhD in Natural Resource Sciences and a MSc in Biological Sciences

Organisms that produce light - like fireflies - are capable of bioluminescence. This lesson will explain the process and take a look at specific examples of bioluminescence in plants, fungi, and bacteria.

What Is Bioluminescence?

As a child, did you ever spend a warm summer night trying to catch fireflies (or lightning bugs) in your backyard? We would put them in jars and watch them glow before releasing them at the end of the night. Bioluminescence is when a living organism, like a firefly, produces and emits light - it's a wonderful phenomenon to witness. It occurs due to chemical reactions occurring within the individual. Chemical reactions that produce light are called chemiluminescence, and when chemiluminescence occurs inside an organism, the overall process is called bioluminescence.

Organisms capable of bioluminescence are most abundant in oceans, but some are also found on land. All chemical reactions require the presence of a substance called luciferin; chemiluminescence is caused by the reaction between luciferin and either luciferase or photoproteins.

Bioluminescent Plants

Bioluminescence is rare in true plants; however, scientists have found a way to artificially create bioluminescent plants by crossing them with bioluminescent bacteria. This has been done with Arabidopsis plants, a member of the mustard family. Otherwise, if plants appear to be bioluminescent, it's most likely because there are bioluminescent bacteria living on them.

There are some plant-like species capable of bioluminescence. Dinoflagellates are plant-like protists that live in the ocean. They're referred to as plant-like because, like plants, they are capable of photosynthesis; however, they are taxonomically classified in a different kingdom. They are single-celled, microscopic organisms that float near the surface, and they can produce beautiful bioluminescent shows when a large population is found. This kind of accumulation is rare, but can be found, usually in tropical lagoons protected from the open ocean.

Bioluminescent dinoflagellates.
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Bioluminescent Fungi

There are about 70 species of fungi that are known to use bioluminescence. Most are found in tropical jungles, but a few are found in temperate forests (like the species called foxfire). Scientists are still trying to figure out why certain fungi species use bioluminescence, but there are three main hypotheses, or theories.

First, by emitting light at night, the fungi can attract insects that pick up spores and spread them to new locations. This is similar to pollination by bees - bees visit a flower, pick up pollen, and transport it to the next flower. It's the same idea with fungi and insects. This theory is supported by the fact that most species only emit light at night when it's dark enough for the insects to see it.

The second theory is that fungi use bioluminescence to attract predators that eat the insects that eat the fungi. Finally, a few species emit light all the time, meaning bioluminescence is probably a metabolic reaction to release excess energy from the organism.

An example of bioluminescent fungi.
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Bioluminescent Bacteria

Bioluminescent bacteria are most often found in the ocean (in the genera Photobacterium and Vibrio) but some are found on land (like the genus Photorhabdus). Some are free-living, but many co-exist with another organism, in a mutually beneficial arrangement called symbiosis. For example, the anglerfish uses bioluminescent bacteria to attract prey in the depths of the ocean where sunlight doesn't reach. In return, the bacteria have a safe place to live in the anglerfish. Other bioluminescent bacteria are parasites, meaning they feed off another organism without providing any benefits.

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