How do living organisms produce light?

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Green fluorescence in a short-nose greeneye fish. The fish glowed under blue light. Image courtesy of Edie Widder, Operation Deep Scope 2004.

This short-nose greeneye fish exhibited green fluorescence under blue light. Image courtesy of Edie Widder, Operation Deep Scope 2004.

While deep areas of the ocean are almost completely dark, light still plays an important role in these environments. The ability of an organism to create its own light could put it at a competitive advantage in situations such as during the hunt for food and evading predators.

Marine animals produce their own primarily by three different processes:

  • Bioluminescence is a form of chemiluminescence, which is the production of visible light by a chemical reaction. When this kind of reaction occurs in living organisms, the process is called bioluminescence. It is familiar to most of us as the process that causes fireflies to glow. While rare in terrestrial ecosystems, bioluminescence is more common in the marine environment. Chemiluminescent reactions produce light without any prior absorption of radiant energy.
  • Fluorescence happens when a fraction of the light illuminating an object is absorbed and then re-emitted as a different color. When you shine an ultraviolet light on a blacklight poster and it glows, that is fluorescence. Fluorescence in marine animals living in the upper to middle part of the water column is usually bright and concentrated in certain body parts. Scientists think that fluorescence in these animals may play a specific function, such as attracting prey or providing visual recognition. In contrast, fluorescence in organisms living on the deep-sea bottom seems to be more of a by-product of particular tissue biochemistry and less likely to play any particular adaptive role.
  • Phosphorescence is similar to fluorescence in its chemistry; however, unlike fluorescence, phosphorescent materials continue to emit light for a much longer time after the external light that triggered the radiation is removed. The glowing hands on watches and clocks are familiar examples.

For More Information:

Living Light (pdf, 1.2 Mb), Bioluminescence 2009: Living Light on the Deep-sea Floor

A Bioluminescent Gallery (pdf, 2.7 Mb), Bioluminescence 2009: Living Light on the Deep-sea Floor

Fluorescence: The Secret Color of the Deep, Operation Deep Scope 2005 

Deep Light, Operation Deep Scope 2004

Detecting Fluorescence: Green, Yellow, Orange, and Red in the Deep Sea, Operation Deep Scope 2004

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