Living organisms may use bioluminescence for a variety of reasons, such as communication and display

23 January 2013 Last updated at 19:39 ET

The light fantastic: Harnessing Nature’s glow

By Paul Rincon
Science editor, BBC News website

Bioluminescence describes the light that some living creatures such as fireflies and jellyfish emit from their cells. Harnessing these reactions has already transformed key areas of clinical diagnosis and medical research.

But scientists are now looking at whether this “living light” could help enhance food crops, detect pollution or even illuminate our journeys home.

On a night in January 1832, off the coast of Tenerife, a young Charles Darwin wandered up on to the deck of the HMS Beagle.

As the young naturalist looked out to sea, he was struck by the unearthly glow emanating from the ocean.

“The sea was luminous in specks and in the wake of the vessel, of a uniform, slightly milky colour,” he wrote.

“When the water was put into a bottle, it gave out sparks for some minutes after having been drawn up.”

Darwin was almost certainly describing the light emitted by tiny marine organisms called dinoflagellates. His accounts of this phenomenon, known as bioluminescence, were unearthed by Prof Anthony Campbell in hand-written notebooks stored at Cambridge University.

While Darwin was one of the first modern scientists to document the phenomenon, it would be more than a century before it was put to practical use. Prof Campbell, from Cardiff University, carried out pioneering research throughout the 1970s and 1980s leading to the discovery that living creatures produce this light using special proteins called luciferases. The proteins take part in a chemical reaction in the cells, which is responsible for the light emission.

“When I started researching bioluminescence 40 years ago at the [Cardiff University] medical school, a lot of people raised their eyebrows and said: ‘What the devil is this guy doing working on animals in the sea? He was brought from Cambridge to do medical research’,” Prof Campbell explains.

Read more: BBC News – The light fantastic: Harnessing Nature's glow.

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