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Luciferases and Light-emitting Accessory Proteins: Structural Biology

  1. Miriam L Sharpe1,
  2. J Woodland Hastings2,
  3. Kurt L Krause1

Published Online: 15 APR 2014

DOI: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0003064.pub2



How to Cite

Sharpe, M. L., Hastings, J. W. and Krause, K. L. 2014. Luciferases and Light-emitting Accessory Proteins: Structural Biology. eLS. .

Author Information

  1. 1

    University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand

  2. 2

    Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA

  1. Based in part on the previous version of this eLS article ‘Luciferases and Light-emitting Accessory Proteins: Structural Biology’ (2005) by J Woodland Hastings and Kurt L Krause.

Publication History

  1. Published Online: 15 APR 2014


Creatures that glow have mesmerised people for aeons. During the last few hundred years, scientists have been trying to reveal exactly how organisms produce this light, or bioluminescence. It has been estimated that approximately 30 or more chemically distinct bioluminescence systems have evolved independently. The luciferase enzymes that catalyse bioluminescent reactions use a variety of different structures to produce light. This article looks at the X-ray crystal structures known for five different types of luciferases: bacterial, dinoflagellate, firefly, and two classes of coelenterates (anthozoan and hydrozoan). The structures of these enzymes reveal details of how they catalyse bioluminescence reactions, and their remarkable diversity of structure, mechanism and substrate specificity. Two accessory fluorescent proteins are also described.

Key Concepts:

  • Luciferases are enzymes that catalyse reactions that produce bioluminescence.

  • Approximately 30 distinct bioluminescent systems have evolved.

  • Bioluminescent reactions all involve oxygenation of a substrate to generate a peroxide intermediate, which then breaks down to give an electronically excited product that emits light.

  • X-ray crystallographic structures are known for the luciferases in five different bioluminescent systems: bacteria, dinoflagellates, fireflies, hydrozoa and anthozoa.

  • Each of these luciferases has an entirely different molecular structure and catalyzes bioluminescence in a unique way.


  • luciferase;
  • luciferin;
  • bioluminescence;
  • chemiluminescence;
  • antenna proteins;
  • green fluorescent protein;
  • yellow fluorescent protein;
  • photoprotein;
  • bacterial luciferase;
  • firefly luciferase;
  • dinoflagellate luciferase;
  • renilla luciferase;
  • aequorin;
  • obelin;
  • clytin;
  • hydrozoa;
  • anthozoa