The marine dinoflagellate, Gonyaulax polyedra emits light in a reaction involving the enzymatic oxidation of its tetrapyrrole luciferin by molecular oxygen; its luciferase (LCF) single chain has an estimated molecular mass of 130 kDa, and exhibits a circadian rhythm in its activity. A cDNA expression library in the lambda ZAPII vector was constructed from the polyadenylated RNA isolated from the Gonyaulax cells during the early night phase, the time at which LCF synthesis is believed to be greatest. Of the approx. 1.2 . 10(5) phages from the library screened with antibody against Gonyaulax LCF, 13 positive plaques were obtained. The nucleotide sequences of two of the larger inserts (2.4 kb and 1.6 kb in length), both carrying the poly(A) tail, were determined and found to be identical in the overlapping region. When expressed in Escherichia coli, both cDNA clones produced active luciferase. A Northern hybridization using the cDNA as a probe showed that the length of the lcf mRNA is approx. 4.1 kb, sufficiently long to encode the 130 kDa LCF. Analyses of polymerase chain reaction products, prepared using both the cloned cDNA and Gonyaulax chromosomal DNA as templates, indicated that the cloned region of the luciferase gene does not carry any introns. This represents the first dinoflagellate luciferase to be cloned and sequenced; its deduced amino acid sequence bears no significant homologies with that of any other luciferase, or any other sequence in the data base.