Bioluminescence: The First 3000 Years
Bioluminescence along with astronomy, is one of the oldest subjects of scientific investigation. Light from fireflies is mentioned in ancient Chinese poetry and later more systematic studies are in the writings of Aristotle and Pliny the Elder. In the modern era, Robert Boyle in a 1672 Proc. Roy. Soc. paper, reported the requirement of bacterial bioluminescence for air, now known to be oxygen. His paper contained the first published Table of experimental results. In 1876 Dubois reported that the living light from the bioluminescent clam, could be extracted into solution. He showed that bioluminescence was just a chemical reaction, an enzyme and substrate, which he dubbed “luciferase” and "luciferine". In 1947, McElroy reported that Dubois' substrate was actually ATP. Genuine firefly luciferin was not purified and structurally characterized until 1959. In 1962, Shimomura noted the presence of a “green protein” in extracts of the bioluminescent jellyfish. 10 years later this was named “Green-fluorescent protein” (GFP), now the most famous protein in Science and the basis of Shimomura’s Nobel prize in 2008.
In the last two decades we have applied biophysical methods: picosecond dynamic fluorescence spectroscopy, NMR, and structural biology, for uncovering bioluminescence mechanisms. I will show how this most primitive organism, the jellyfish, early discovered the most advanced physics, quantum correlation, to generate its characteristic green bioluminescence.