Stories about mysterious lights seen over water, mountains, or fields were often attributed to dragons or the power of the gods. Early religious writings of India and China contain the first written reports of bioluminescence in fireflies and glow worms. But it was the Greeks and the Romans who first reported the characteristics of luminescent organisms. Famous Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BCE) described luminescence as “cold light” because it was not associated with an increase in heat. He also made systematic observations of many luminescent marine species.
The first extensive descriptions of luminous organisms were published by Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE). He discovered luminescence when he ate a clam and ended up with a pair of glowing green lips. Pliny also found that when the luminous material from the clam was mixed with flour, honey, and water, the paste produced light. This light could sometimes last for a whole year, as long as water was being added regularly. In his writings, he described the luminescence of snails, jellyfish, lantern fish, fungi, and glow-worms. Pliny the Elder was also the first person to find practical applications for the light produced by these organisms. He described how a piece of wood rubbed with a fish called Pulmo Marinus could be used as a torch.
Many 15th and 16th century voyagers such as Christopher Columbus and Sir Francis Drake referred to mysterious lights in the sea or to a “burning sea” phenomenon. In literature, references to bioluminescence were found in the work of Shakespeare, when Hamlet refers to the fire of the glow worm. Fireflies may even have changed the course of history. In 1634, when a British fleet was trying to land in Cuba, they saw many flashes of light coming from the shore. Attributing the flashes to the gunfire of Spanish forces, the British fleet didn’t disembark, but sailed on. There were, however, no Spanish forces on the island of Cuba at that time. The British simply mistook the flashes of fireflies for a large military force!
The first book devoted to bioluminescence and chemiluminescence was published in 1555 by Swiss naturalist Conrad Gesner. Robert Boyle (1627-1691), famous for Boyle’s law, performed the first chemical studies of firefly luminescence. He hypothesized that air was a requirement for luminescence (this was later modified to oxygen).
Not much advance occurred in the arena of jellyfish luminescence after Pliny the Elder’s descriptions of the same. Many centuries later, German scientist and explorer, Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) performed the first recorded jellyfish luminescence experiments. Sicilian Abbe Lazzaro Spallanzani discovered that the material responsible for luminescence in jellyfish was mucus that formed on the edge of the umbrella and on the arms of the jellyfish. During the 16th and 17th century, luminescent material was added to medicines solely for the purpose of impressing patients.
In 1885, French pharmacologist Raphael Dubois performed a pivotal experiment in which he extracted the two key components of a bioluminescent reaction from a click beetle. He named these components luciferin and luciferase. They were both named after Lucifer, the fallen angel of light.
E. Newton Harvey (1887-1959), a Princeton University professor, soon became the foremost expert on bioluminescence. He discovered that luciferins (the light-emitting substances occurring in luminescent organisms) and luciferases (enzymes that interact with luciferins) from different animals were specific to a particular species and not interchangeable. He theorized that the inability to interchange luciferins and luciferases across species was evidence of evolution, as each species had adapted to fit its specific needs.
Harvey was soon followed by Osamu Shimomura, who also worked at Princeton University studying the jellyfish. Through his research, he was able to show that a protein, later named GFP (green fluorescent protein), was involved in jellyfish luminescence and that this protein could be isolated from the jellyfish. Shimomura was awarded the Noble Prize in Chemistry in 2008 for his work on GFP.