Bioluminescence - visible and cold light emission by living organisms - is a worldwide phenomenon, reported in terrestrial and marine environments since ancient times. Light emission from microorganisms, fungi, plants and animals may have arisen as an evolutionary response against oxygen toxicity and was appropriated for sexual attraction, predation, aposematism, and camouflage. Light emission results from the oxidation of a substrate, luciferin, by molecular oxygen, catalyzed by a luciferase, producing oxyluciferin in the excited singlet state, which decays to the ground state by fluorescence emission. Brazilian Atlantic forests and Cerrados are rich in luminescent beetles, which produce the same luciferin but slightly mutated luciferases, which result in distinct color emissions from green to red depending on the species. This review focuses on chemical and biological aspects of Brazilian luminescent beetles (Coleoptera) belonging to the Lampyridae (fireflies), Elateridae (click-beetles), and Phengodidae (railroad-worms) families. The ATP-dependent mechanism of bioluminescence, the role of luciferase tuning the color of light emission, the “luminous termite mounds” in Central Brazil, the cooperative roles of luciferase and superoxide dismutase against oxygen toxicity, and the hypothesis on the evolutionary origin of luciferases are highlighted. Finally, we point out analytical uses of beetle bioluminescence for biological, clinical, environmental, and industrial samples.
Coleoptera; bioluminescence; luciferase; luciferin; luminous termitary; oxidative stress.