Biodiversity and Evolution

How do scientists use bioluminescence in research?
Answered by Lu Fong and Planet Green
  • Lu Fong

    Lu Fong

  • Planet Green

    Planet Green

  1. If you’ve ever marveled at a firefly-lit summer night (or seen the Pixar classic, “Finding Nemo”), then you know what bioluminescence looks like. Mother Nature’s naturally occurring light shows have captured the imaginations of poets and deep-sea thrill seekers alike for generations, inspiring anyone from Robert Frost to James Cameron. (Think "Avatar’s" glowing plant life.)

    And like most of nature’s experiments, bioluminescence offers a range of research potential, which scientists are still in the process of uncovering. Its applications range from the biomedical to the military to even, perhaps, the streetlights in your own neighborhood. As a naturally occurring phenomenon, bioluminescence offers an environmentally friendly way to safely solve problems in a vast number of fields.

    Perhaps the most promising use of bioluminescence, however, occurs in the medical world, where researchers are exploring its potential usefulness in catching illnesses like cancer, early on. Where current practice calls for invasive procedures like biopsy analysis, bioluminescent imaging (BLI) uses the light given off of bioluminescent organisms to spot abnormalities and other infectious diseases. Current research has found success in identifying eye cancer and even breast cancer with this technique [sources: ScienceDaily and Luker]. BLI also offers researchers a chance to study the structure of cancer itself, which could lead to a cure down the road.

    In one case, a bioluminescent bacterium called Vibrio fischeri helped shed light (ha!) on how to combat infectious disease with something called “quorum sensing.” This is, essentially, bacteria’s ability to sense and communicate with other bacteria. For the bioluminescent sort, it triggers a rather astonishing light display but a similar (less pretty) kind of communication can be observed in disease-causing bacteria too. (In short, talkative bacteria are the ones that make us sick.) Researchers have figured out how to harness and prevent this phenomenon from happening, which has helped curb anything from food poisoning to cholera [source: OSNA].

    Our health isn’t the only thing that’s benefited. The military recently began pouring money into bioluminescent research, hoping to eventually see results like Earth-friendly landing zone indicators for helicopters (that won’t get blown away in the wind) or even security systems that differentiate between enemies and friendlies. The research could also aid in marking places and things without giving off a heat signal and giving them away [source: Defencetalk].

    And finally, the truly sci-fi inspired uses. One study at Cambridge University explored a way to create “bioluminescent trees” that could, potentially, offer a sustainable way of lighting our streets and road signs. By experimenting with firefly genes, researchers are hoping to find a way to harness the light-producing DNA into energy efficient light sources for commercial use [source: Firth].

    Of course, these only skim the surface of what research is out there. So the next time you’re delighted by that swarm of blinking insects outside your window, shoot them a little thank you.

    hat else do you think of when you think of bioluminescence? Our friend the firefly of course. Here's Photinus pyralis posing on soy bean plant. (Gail Shumway/Getty Images)

    More answers from Lu Fong »

  2. Researchers are constantly developing new uses for studying bioluminescence. They use single-celled bioluminescent organisms to determine how animals move through water. They are also applying bioluminescence to medical research. They have learned that transferring bioluminescent traits to animals that are not already bioluminescent can aid in studying how certain diseases, such as cancer or Alzheimer's, progress in the body.

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