Course Blog

Bioluminescence, Light Wherever and Whenever

It is a well-known fact that light is a necessity of life. Few ecosystems can exist free of light generated by the sun on Earth. Humans have generated several methods of generating light artificially, be it by fire, heat or electricity. Despite our total reliance on light, there exist places and societies where access to light is limited because of lack of grid-powered electricity (Jamil, 2013) and fuel for fires. As is the case for most problems faced by humans, biology has evolved an answer. Bioluminescence is a phenomenon by which light can be generated artificially by an organism through the expression and catalysis of the protein luciferase (Zhao et al. 2013), generating a high energy photon to be released, expressing light. The light has been the suggested cause of the natural phenomenon “the milky sea effect”. This effect is so powerful it can be seen from space. It is caused by the bioluminescence of huge aggregates of bacteria and dinoflagellates in the water column.

Milky Sea effect displayed in a body of water.
A diagram giving details of the luciferase reaction process for bioluminescence. Adapted from (Zhao et al. 2013)

The knowledge that some animals and bacteria can give off light is not newly known. People have sat in awe of fireflies for millennia and some scientists have even managed to express bioluminescence in the laboratory in other animals for medical research purposes (Chen et al. 2017). What has not been attempted is the stabilisation and use of luciferase outside of a living organism as a method of creating an applicable light source on any surface or even in the air. Because the reaction does not make use of oxygen in the air as fire does, nor does it cost any electrical energy as a conventional light would, it is an ideal solution to the problem. The potential applications of a movable, aerosol form, safe and stable light source are almost endless. Storing proteins in an aerosol form has been attempted recently and would be an ideal way to store proteins for use (Stützle et al. 2016). The ability to give light with a simple spray that lasts for hours at a time and it bright enough to carry out work under the darkest of conditions would be of huge use to society in a massive number of fields. Whether it be miners looking to apply light to surfaces to clearly see their surroundings or fashion designers looking to give their new look that extra special something, a totally flexible, environmentally friendly applicable light source could provide the answer. This spray could be proliferated for longer with a secondary application of luciferin (the substrate required by luciferase) to give the protein more time to luminesce. 

A rendering of how glowing applicable light could look.


  1. Jamil, F. (2013). On the electricity shortage, price and electricity theft nexus. Energy Policy, 54, 267-272.
  2. Zhao, Jingyi, Lin, Shixian, Huang, Yong, Zhao, Jing, & Chen, Peng R. (2013). Mechanism-based design of a photoactivatable firefly luciferase. Journal of the American Chemical Society, 135(20), 7410-3.
  3. Chen, C.-Y. et al. (2017) The in vivo anti-leukemia activity of N-(1-Pyrenlyl) maleimide in a bioluminescent mouse model. Leukemia Research 62, 64–69
  4. Stützle, M., Carle, S., Engelhardt, L., Simon, U., Schafmeister, A., Mavoungou, C., & Schindowski, K. (2015). Protein aerosol for intranasal nose to brain (N2B) delivery. BMC Proceedings, 9(Suppl 9), O11.