Two different domains of the luciferase gene in the heterotrophic dinoflagellate Noctiluca scintillans occur as two separate genes in photosynthetic species

Noctiluca scintillans, a heterotrophic unarmored unicellular bioluminescent dinoflagellate, occurs widely in the oceans, often as a bloom. Molecular phylogenetic analysis based on 18S ribosomal DNA sequences consistently has placed this species on the basal branch of dinoflagellates. Here, we report that the structural organization of its luciferase gene is strikingly different from that of the seven luminous species previously characterized, all of which are photosynthetic. The Noctiluca gene codes for a polypeptide that consists of two distinct but contiguous domains. One, which is located in the N-terminal portion, is shorter than but similar in sequence to the individual domains of the three-domain luciferases found in all other luminous dinoflagellates studied. The other, situated in the C-terminal part, has sequence similarity to the luciferin-binding protein of the luminous dinoflagellate Lingulodinium polyedrum, encoded there by a separate gene. Western analysis shows that the native protein has the same size (approximately 100 kDa) as the heterologously expressed polypeptide, indicating that it is not a polyprotein. Thus, sequences found in two proteins in the L. polyedrum bioluminescence system are present in a single polypeptide in Noctiluca.