Bioluminescence, the emission of ecologically functional light by living organisms, emerged independently on several occasions, yet the evolutionary origins of most bioluminescent systems remain obscure. We propose that the luminescent substrates of the luminous reactions (luciferins) are the evolutionary core of most systems, while luciferases, the enzymes catalysing the photogenic oxidation of the luciferin, serve to optimise the expression of the endogenous chemiluminescent properties of the luciferin. Coelenterazine, a luciferin occurring in many marine bioluminescent groups, has strong antioxidative properties as it is highly reactive with reactive oxygen species such as the superoxide anion or peroxides. We suggest that the primary function of coelenterazine was originally the detoxification of the deleterious oxygen derivatives. The functional shift from its antioxidative to its light-emitting function might have occurred when the strength of selection for antioxidative defence mechanisms decreased. This might have been made possible when marine organisms began colonising deeper layers of the oceans, where exposure to oxidative stress is considerably reduced because of reduced light irradiance and lower oxygen levels. A reduction in metabolic activity with increasing depth would also have decreased the endogenous production of reactive oxygen species. Therefore, in these organisms, mechanisms for harnessing the chemiluminescence of coelenterazine in specialised organs could have developed, while the beneficial antioxidative properties were maintained in other tissues. The full range of graded irradiance in the mesopelagic zone, where the majority of organisms are bioluminescent, would have provided a continuum for the selection and improvement of proto-bioluminescence. Although the requirement for oxygen or reactive oxygen species observed in bioluminescent systems reflects the high energy required to produce visible light, it may suggest that oxygen-detoxifying mechanisms provided excellent foundations for the emergence of many bioluminescent systems.

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