The yellow-green glow from this summer’s fireflies teased my kids across the yard. Max and Stella zigzagged the grass, occasionally jumping into the air to cup a firefly in their hands and then proudly shouting, “I got one!”
Chasing fireflies on a summer night is a childhood rite of passage for many, including Nathan Shaner who grew up in New Jersey. “It was one of my favorite things about summer,” he recalls. “I’d catch them with my hands—I’d never jar them.”
Today, Shaner studies the science of bioluminescence, which gives fireflies and many other organisms the natural ability to emit light. His goal is to make bright bioluminescent tags that he and other scientists can use to study living cells in greater detail. “There’s this very beautiful thing that evolved in nature, and we can use it to enable new discoveries,” he says.
Thousands of organisms glow as a way to communicate, spook predators, lure prey or attract mates. There are a few terrestial examples, such as fireflies, glowworm insect larvae and foxfire fungi, and many more acquatic ones, including types of marine plankton, fish, jellyfish, shrimp, squid and sea urchins. One research team estimated nearly three quarters of sea life have bioluminescent capabilities.
Every studied case of bioluminescence involves oxygen, a light-emitting pigment called luciferin and a protein called luciferase. Luciferase encourages the pigment’s reaction with oxygen, releasing energy in the form of light. Although many bioluminescent creatures have their own form of luciferase, they share just a handful of luciferins. For example, the luciferin called coelenterazine is found in many aquatic organisms. Continue reading