The chemistry of bioluminescence: an analysis of chemical functionalities

Chemphyschem. 2011 Dec 9;12(17):3064-76. doi: 10.1002/cphc.201100504. Epub 2011 Oct 13.


Firefly luciferase is one of the most studied bioluminescent systems, both theoretically and experimentally. Herein we review the current understanding of the bioluminescent process from a chemical functionality perspective based on those investigations. Three key components are emphasized: the chemiluminophore, the electron-donating fragment, and how these are affected by the substrate-enzyme interaction. The understanding is based on details of how the peroxide -O-O- bond supports the production of electronically excited products and how the charge-transfer (CT) mechanism, with the aid of an electron-donating group, lowers the activation barrier to support a reaction occurs in living organisms. For the substrate-enzyme complex it is demonstrated that the enzyme can affect the hydrogen-bonding around the CT-controlling group, resulting in a mechanism for color modulation. Finally, we analyse other luciferin-luciferase systems and compare them to the key chemical functionalities of the fragments of the luciferin-luciferase complex with respect to similarities and differences.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Benzothiazoles / chemistry
  • Firefly Luciferin / chemistry*
  • Luciferases, Firefly / chemistry
  • Luciferases, Firefly / metabolism*
  • Luminescent Measurements
  • Models, Theoretical


  • Benzothiazoles
  • Firefly Luciferin
  • Luciferases, Firefly
  • benzothiazole