Bioluminescence in the deep sea

Steve Haddock, Ph.D.
Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute

Wednesday, March 10, 1999
3:00 p.m.—Pacific Forum

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The ability to produce light is widespread in marine organisms, but nowhere is it more prominent than in the twilight regions of the midwater zone. In fact, at depths between 500 and 1,500 meters, it is more surprising to find an organism that is not bioluminescent than one that is.

In the sea, luminescence occurs in everything from single-celled radiolarians and bacteria to urochordates and fish. It has evolved independently many times, and this convergence indicates that light-production must convey a strong selective advantage to a variety of organisms.

Despite its widespread occurrence, many fundamental questions have not been completely answered:
What organisms are bioluminescent and what do they use it for?
What are the chemical mechanisms that produce the light?
Are bacteria involved somehow?
What role does luminescence play in the midwater community as a whole?
Does any of this matter to the rest of humanity?

These questions and more will be addressed in the context of current and future research.

For more information about bioluminescence, see

Next: Seasonal intrusions of equatorial waters in Monterey Bay

Last updated: December 19, 2000