Who discovered luciferin? The history of unraveling the chemical reaction behind bioluminescence starts in the ancient times and requires science and information gathering to evolve in order to begin to scratch the surface of this process.

In this article, we reveal the early history of the very important enzyme-substrate system, the luciferin-luciferase system.

In This Article:

The History of Bioluminescence Science

Raphael Dubois discovered the luciferin substrate and luciferase enzyme in the 1880s. This timeline shows bioluminescent history from the ancient times up until the 1880s with Dubois's luciferin - luciferase discovery. Also highlights when the scientific method was discovered by Descartes, maritime recordings of bioluminescent phenomena and more.

Luciferin and luciferase have an ancient history since the observation of bioluminescence has long been observed around the world.

Earliest records of bioluminescence were recorded as observations of marine life, glowworms and fireflies. Over time, however, recordings started to evolve from being purely observational to becoming more experimental.

In the 17th century, three modes of thought fueled the scientific revolution and an interest in luminescence: scientific methodology became more disciplined (birth of the scientific method), there was growing interest in the scientific explanation of light, and an emphasis on experimentation as a means of acquiring knowledge.

Over the decades collective observations regarding bioluminescence were published, and hypotheses were produced.

Initial Records of Bioluminescence (BCE-1500s AD)

Bioluminescence has struck wonder within humanity for millennia. Ancient poetry from China referenced animal light, which historians and researchers believe to be the very first documented references to bioluminescence.

It was the Greeks and Romans who began recording more explicit observations. The first Greek reference to marine phosphorescence date back to 500 BCE with descriptions of marine observations.

Aristotle (384 – 332 BCE) recorded bioluminescence in detail. During his study, he discovered these organisms were capable of self-luminosity. And he was the first to reveal light, in this sense, is not associated with heat. A term coined, cold light.

Centuries later, Gaius Plinius Secundus (Pliny the Elder 23-79 CE) produced “Naturalis Historia,” an account of world knowledge at the time. Pliny’s work was so important, it has been translated into several languages and has survived to this day. In “Naturalis Historia,” Pliny detailed bioluminescent organisms, including fireflies, jellyfish and glowworms.

During the middle ages, Albertus Magnus (1206-1280 CE), a German Monk, wrote “De Animalibus,” a work formally published in 1478 after the invention of the printing press. “De Animalibus” cataloged many bioluminescent animals, but it came with its flaws as well, such as perpetuating the myth of luminous birds (Lee, 2008).

So far, recordings of bioluminescence up into the middle ages are still recordings and speculations with no scientific experimentation to provide evidence for any assumptions.

Bioluminescent tree of life by Eleanor Lutz catalogs several bioluminescent organisms and their organizations. Much like early works by Pliny the Elder's, Kircher's and Gessner's works cataloging bioluminescent phenomena

Bioluminescent Tree of Life: This is a visual, organized chart displays selected bioluminescent Species, including all known luciferin, luciferase and photoprotein structures. This visual is based on the textbook “Bioluminescence: Chemical Principles and Methods (Revised Edition)” IMAGE | With permission from Eleanor Lutz (eleanorlutz.com). In using this image, Eleanor Lutz is not affiliated nor endorses Gold Biotechnology.

Conrad Gessner (1516-1565)

Conrad Gessner was a 16th century natural history professor in Zurich. He contributed to the world’s understanding of bioluminescence by publishing the book “De Lunariis” specifically dedicated to luminescence. Among topics in this book were bioluminescent animals, plants, and even observations of luminous stones. This book, like many others during these centuries, was a collection of historical observations.

Gessner, as well as other 15th century scholars, continued to believe in the existence of luminous birds. In this case, the scholars of the time speculated that light was emitted through the eyes – much like the observed light of cats’ eyes (Lee, 2008).

Athanasius Kircher (1602 – 1680)

A German priest by the name Athanasius Kircher published a book abundant in information about luminescence. He believed, bioluminescence in animals served a purpose, allowing them to be seen. In further experiments, he found luminescence could be transferred. His experiments also demonstrated that firefly light does not glow indefinitely (Lee, 2008).

Bartholin (1616-1680)

In 1647 Danish physician Bartholin published “De Luce Animalium,” the most comprehensive book of the time on luminescence. Bartholin recorded all of his travel observations of luminescence and formed the idea that light is present in everything. The source of this light could come from bioluminescence, from friction, reflection or iridescence (Lee, 2008).

Robert Boyle (1627 - 1691)

Robert Boyle, the father of modern chemistry, wrote about topics such as philosophy and theology. However, more of his interests were spent performing and recording experimental observations, mainly focused on chemistry and physics problems. One of these problems of the time was luminescence.

Light emission in rotting wood and in various fish led him into deeper investigation where he and assistant Robert Hooke studied the impact of air on luciferin.

Through his experimentation, Robert Boyle is credited for discovering air (later determined oxygen) as one requirement for a bioluminescent reaction (Lee, 2008).

Important Related Discoveries of the 18th Century

Robert Boyle demonstrated the success of scientific experimentation that the process was becoming more widely used in the 18th century to study electricity, heat, light and the composition of air, air composition being important to bioluminescent chemistry.

The discovery of oxygen is credited to Priestly, Lavosier and Scheel. Studies of respiration and combustion and its relationship with light emission led other scientists to conduct further studies on the relationship between oxygen and bioluminescence.

Two other important discoveries emerged during the 18th century that helped accelerate our growing understanding of bioluminescence. The first was that the production of light does not necessarily rely on a living organism. Recall Kircher observing luminous material from a clam could be scrapped off and transferred to a stick. The material could be kept for a year, and the light returning when water was added.

The second discovery was that marine observations of luminescence stemmed from animals.

In 1877, Bronislaw Radziszewski discovered chemiluminescent reaction in lophine. This discovery led Raphaël Dubois wanting to examine if bioluminescence was a chemiluminescent reaction occurring in animals (Lee, 2008).

The Discovery of Luciferin and Luciferase by Raphaël Dubois

It was Raphaël Dubois’s work at the end of 19th century that validated his hypothesis. Dubois used bioluminescent clams and cold water to make a glowing paste. He split the paste into two parts. When he heated the first sample to near boiling, the glow immediately stopped. The glow other paste sample, still cold, eventually went out. After the first, heated sample cooled, he mixed it with the unheated sample and observed light emission once more.

Dubois performed a similar experiment with the bioluminescent click beetle Pyrophorus, he observed the same reaction.

These observations led Dubois to discover the root of bioluminescence coming from a heat stable organic molecule he called Luciferine (which became luciferin in time), and an enzyme he called Luciferase (Lee, 2008).

Scientific interest in the chemistry of the luciferin-luciferase reaction didn’t stop there, as we know. Continued interest in the wondrousness of bioluminescent light has inspired researchers to explore the complexities more, and harness its power for biological breakthroughs.


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