UAE researchers decode why fireflies light up

Dubai - Study provides the most comprehensive critical overview of the bioluminescence of beetles, including fireflies.

Photo: Wam
Photo: Wam

By Wam

Published: Sun 13 Dec 2020, 1:52 PM

Last updated: Sun 13 Dec 2020, 1:58 PM

A team of researchers from the New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) has conducted an “exhaustive review” of the scientific literature surrounding the natural production of light called bioluminescence. The team’s work will help others in the field uncover the mysteries behind this natural phenomenon.

The study done by the NYUAD’s Smart Materials Lab (SML) was led by Professor of Chemistry Panče Naumov.

In the study called ‘The Elusive Relationship Between Structure and Colour Emission in Beetle Luciferases’ — which is featured on the cover of the journal Nature Reviews Chemistry — Naumov and colleagues provide the most comprehensive critical overview of the bioluminescence of beetles, including fireflies, to date.

The NYUAD researchers identify the intricate structural factors that govern what colour light is emitted by wild-type and mutant luciferases — the enzymes that generate light.

They also demonstrated that it is possible to build a library of bioluminescent enzymes in the future. This will enable researchers to control the colour and intensity of light emission by engineering luciferases at will.

“Learning from nature will provide us with tools to engineer luciferases that can emit colours within a large range of energies,” said Naumov. “This will eventually help us expand the range of application of these and similar enzymes ... in biology and medicine, including early diagnosis and prevention of diseases.”

Throughout history, bioluminescence has been an inspiration to scientists, artists, and laypersons. Glowing fungi or ostracods have been used by tribes and soldiers as lanterns to guide their way through jungles without the need of electricity. Fireflies were used by miners as safety lights.

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2008 was awarded for the discovery of the green fluorescent protein, a bioluminescent protein found in the jellyfish Aequorea victoria. Today, bioluminescence is the basis for several bioanalytical methods, such as cell imaging, cancer research, and control of food contamination.

It is also a way to efficiently convert the energy stored in chemical bonds into light that can be easily detected.

For example, bioluminescence of some bacterial strains is used to monitor water toxicity and contamination. The fluorescent proteins are genetically inserted into cells and animals to analyse important aspects of dynamics of some diseases.

The latest research is poised to solve some of the mysteries surrounding the chemistry of bioluminescence and to bring this research closer to applications.

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