John Lee
Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology
University of Georgia, Athens, GA 30602

Light has occupied an important place in the superstition of many races (Klein, 1965). It has been referred to in the folklore of Polynesians, Siberians and Scandinavians and in the myths of the lore of ancient seafarers. Stories of mysterious lights or fires seen over water, fields or mountains were often ascribed to dragons or the gods (Harvey, 1957). Reports of fireflies have been found in the early religious writings of India and China. The earliest recordings of bioluminescence were believed to have come from such writings of the ancient Eastern civilisations and referred to both the firefly and the glow-worm (Lee, 2008).

The Greeks and Romans were the first to report the characteristics of luminous organisms. Aristotle (384-322 BC) described 180 marine species and was the first to recognise "cold light." The Greeks also made reference to sea phosphorescence (about 500 BC) (Harvey, 1957).

Figure 1. Marine dinoflagellates, shown in this plate from Das Leuchten des Meeres, C.G. Ehrenberg (1834); (Harvey, 1957), are microscopic organisms that were recognized to be responsible for the phosphorescence of the sea in about 1830.

In the fifteenth century voyagers commented on the "burning sea" phenomenon. Christopher Columbus (1492). referred to mysterious lights in the water before reaching San Salvador Tropical fireflies in the east were seen by Sir Frances Drake (1540-1596).

In the sixteenth century references to bioluminescence were found in literature such as Shakespeare (1564 -1616) in Hamlet who talked of the "effectual fire of the glow-worm." English explorers apparently mistook the light from fire beetles for the lights of Spanish campfires and decided to avoid landing on Cuba in 1634, perhaps altering the history of the new world (Jacobs, 1974). The first book devoted to bioluminescence and chemiluminescence was published in 1555 by Conrad Gesner (1555; Carter and Kricka, 1982: Harvey, 1957).

Figure 2. The fire beetle (Pyrophorus), or the cucayo or elaterid beetle that may have deceived the English in 1634 is shown in this plate from Muffet (1634); (Harvey, 1957). The fire beetle can be 2 inches long. Two large, round greenish-yellow lights that may stay lit for minutes give it its modern nickname, automobile bug.

In 1667 Robert Boyle (1667) documented the air requirement for luminescence. Oxygen had not yet been discovered, but we now recognize that this air requirement was, in reality, an oxygen requirement of the process. This represented a new era in the characterization of bioluminescence rather than just its documentation. The nineteenth century brought scientific voyages such as that of H.M.S. Challenger (1873). Later in that century Raphael Dubois performed a significant experiment where he extracted the two key components of a bioluminescent reaction and was able to generate light. He coined the terms "luciferine" and the heat labile "luciferase".

One of the most eminent scientists of the twentieth century was a "Princeton Professor" E.Newton Harvey (1887-1959). He spent much of his life looking for the existence of a luciferin-luciferase system in virtually every luminous organism that he could find (Harvey, 1952). The first luciferin was isolated in 1956 (Green and McElroy, 1956). The first photoprotein to be isolated was the calcium-activated photoprotein aequorin in the 1960's (Shimomura et al., 1962). This report also noted that a "green protein" was present in the extracts from which the aequorin was purified, although the green-fluorescent protein (GFP) itself, was not recognized as the source of the bioluminescence in the jellyfish at that time.

Boyle, R. (1667). Obfervations and tryals about the Refemblances and Differences between a burning coal and Shining Wood. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. 2: 605-612.

Carter, T. J. N., and Kricka, L. J. 1982. Luminescence: historic aspects. In Clinical and Biochemical Luminescence. L. J. Kricka, and T. J. N. Carter, editors. Marcel Dekker Inc, New York. 2-5.

Gesner, C. (1555, 1669). De raris et admirandis herbis quae sive quod noctu luceant ...82 pp. Hafniae

Green A.A. and W.D. McElroy, W.D. (1956) Biochim. Biophys. Acta 20: 170-176.

Harvey, E.N. (1952). Bioluminescence. 649 p. Academic Press, New York

Harvey, E.N. (1957). A history of luminescence from the earliest times until 1900. vol 44. The American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia.

Jacobs, F. (1974). Nature's Light: The Story of Bioluminescence. William Morrow and Company, New York.

Klein, A.H. (1965). Bioluminescence. Lippincot, Philadelphia.

Lee, J. (2008). Bioluminescence: the First 3000 Years (Review). J. Sib. Fed. U. Biology 3: 194-205. [PDF].

Shimomura, O., Johnson, F.H., and Saiga, Y. (1962) J. Cell. Comp. Physiol. 59: 223-239.


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