Light from a living plant or animal is called bioluminescence, or cold light, to distinguish it from incandescence, or heat generating light. Life forms could not produce incandescent light without being burned. Their light is produced by chemicals combining in such a way that little or no measurable heat is produced, and the life forms generating it are unharmed. Although bioluminescence is a relatively complicated process, it can be reduced to simple terms. Living light occurs when luciferin and oxygen combine in the presence of luciferase. In a few cases, fireflies the most commons, an additional compound called ATP is required.
The earliest recorded experiments with bioluminescence in the late 1800s are attributed to Raphael Dubois, who extracted a luminous fluid from a clam, observing that it continued to glow in the test tube for several minutes. He named the substance luciferin, which means “the bearer of light.” In further research, Dubois discovered that several chemicals were required for bioluminescence to occur. In his notes, it was recorded that a second important substance, which he called luciferase, was always present. In later studies of small, luminous sea creatures, Newton Harvey concluded that luciferin was composed of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, which are the building blocks of all living cells. He also proved that there are a variety of luciferins and luciferases, specific to the plants and animals that produce them.
Much remains unknown, but many scientists who are studying bioluminescence now believe that the origin of the phenomenon may be traced to a time when there was no oxygen in the Earth’s atmosphere. When oxygen was gradually introduced into the atmosphere, it was actually poisonous to life forms. Plants and animals produced light to use up the oxygen in a gradual but necessary adaptation. It is speculated that millions of years ago, all life may have produced light to survive. As the millennia passed, life forms on Earth became tolerant of, and finally dependent on oxygen, and the adaptation that produced bioluminescence was no longer necessary, but some primitive plants and animals continued to use the light for new functions such as mating or attracting prey.
TAKEN FROM BARON TOEFL EXERCISES