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Bioluminescence: Fireflies and the Future

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Biology 103
2001 First Web Report
On Serendip

Bioluminescence: Fireflies and the Future

Heather Shelton

As a child I was fascinated by the soft glow of the summer fireflies. I used to chase after their tiny flashing bodies just to see if I could get close enough to one to figure out how they work. What is so engaging about them? Light is such a powerful force in our universe and the idea of an organism being able to create its own light is an incredibly exciting concept. How are they able to create this "light"? And why is it useful for their survival? Fireflies must utilize this fairly unique ability for some important purpose. Could these light producing fireflies teach us anything about life?

Why Do Fireflies Glow?

Organisms that produce light are referred to bioluminescent beings. Bioluminescence is defined as "the process wherein light is produced by a chemical reaction which originates in the organism" (1). Bioluminescence is mostly a phenomenon found at the bottom of the ocean floor, but fireflies also possess this ability. They emit a soft light and are often called "lightning bugs" because of the way they flash their light on and off. Contrary to what one might think, the glow that the fireflies give off is not used to attract or deter their prey. On the other hand, fireflies use different intermittent signals in order to capture the attention of a possible future mate. Both sexes of fireflies use a specific flash pattern that can range anywhere from a short burst to a long continuous flashing sequence (2). Within any given population, there are many different species of fireflies and each species has a distinct signal. Males and females locate each other by recognizing their specific sequences. Since mating is essential to survival, attracting a mate can sometime become an aggressive game. It is not unusual in this game for a specific female species of firefly to fake their signals in order to confuse and lure a male from another species for the sole purpose of eliminating him. Overall, the firefly's lantern is essentially a courtship device; but how does the firefly actually make light?

How Does Bioluminescence Work?

The light that a firefly creates is the result of a combination of four different ingredients. This light is produced through a chemical reaction involving Luciferin, which is a substrate, Luciferase, an enzyme, ATP, and oxygen (3). The light producing section of the body is located in the sixth or seventh abdominal section of the firefly. It is within this cavity that the two compounds Luciferin and Luciferase are stored. A firefly will draw oxygen in through its complex system of air tubes and expose the oxygen to the Luciferin and the Luciferin will then oxidize and activate the Luciferase. This will generate a light that will shine through the skeleton of the abdomen. It is important to note that scientists disagree about the method that the fireflies use to control the duration of their flashes. One theory, known as the "Oxygen Control Theory", explains that fireflies can control the length and duration of their light by regulating the amount of oxygen that they intake (3). If little or no oxygen reaches the part of the firefly known as the phonic organ, the chemical reaction will not be extremely strong and the light of the firefly will not shine very brightly or for a lengthy duration (3). Another theory, known as the "Neural Activation Theory" states that fireflies have neural control over the activity of structures called "tracheal end cells" (3). These structures aid in the initiation of the chemical reaction. Whether or not the fireflies have physical or neural control over their ability to produce light, their method of creating the light that emanates from their bodies is extremely efficient. Very little heat is given off of this light which means that not very much energy is wasted at all. This "cold light" has a 96% efficiency rating; which, when compared to an incandescent light that has only 10% efficiency, is rather impressive (3).

How Useful is Bioluminescence?

Christopher Contag, a bioluminescence researcher a Stanford University began to think more about this glow-in-the-dark idea and developed a way to utilize the process that occurs in fireflies when doing research about living tissue. This is because fireflies create light due to a chemical reaction that depends on the presence of ATP. If ATP is present in a sample of something, that is a good indication that life is occurring within that specimen (4). NASA has considered using this method to test for life on other planets. If these firefly compounds were mixed with samples and they produced a glowing reaction, that would mean that the presence of ATP would be highly likely. Biologists are also using this approach to fight Tuberculosis. If the enzyme Luciferase is added to a cultured sample of Tuberculosis and an antibiotic is also added, the strength of the antibiotic can be tested. If the drug fails, then the bacteria will continue to thrive and glow. This method enables researches and doctors to cut the time needed for drug treatments to just three days instead of three months (4). This research has also been employed in gene activation therapy cases, where ultraviolet cameras seek out genes treated with Luciferase. If light is visible, this means that the Luciferase gene is active. This will help researchers to know when they have made a successfully attempt a gene therapy. "This is a powerful approach for looking at any number of biological phenomena, because you can study gene regulation in a living animal over time, in superficial or deep tissues," said Contag (4). There is enormous potential for this type of research.

There are many forms of life in this world. There is also an incredible range of diversity among the kinds of living organisms that roam the earth. Although there is still a lot that we do not know about bioluminescence and fireflies, we do know that the findings of the experiments with Luciferin, Luciferase, and ATP can lead scientists to new and exciting discoveries. I never knew that the fireflies that make up my favorite memories from childhood would be helping to save so many lives.

WWW Sources

1)The Bioluminesence Web Page , @ UCSB

2)The Fire Fly Files , By Branham, Mark.

3)Nature Bulletin 27 Forest Preserve District Cook County , By Clayton Smith, President.

4)Living mice glow when genes turn onTim Stephens The Stanford Online Journal



Continuing conversation
(to contribute your own observations/thoughts, post a comment below)

12/11/2005, from a Reader on the Web

Well this might sound weird,but the only reason I got to your page is because of a song, by Peter Frampton, "Baby I love your way" in which he wonders how fireflies are able to shine, and that got me wondering too. I found your article extremely helpful and informative for someone like myself thats not a a student of the art. And to my suprise, that the ability to shine helps discover new life and research. I thank you for the chance to read such great article, and most likely be back to read some more. Sincerely


Additional comments made prior to 2007

The paragraph was very informative though all the other search results in one way or the other speak along the same line of how helful the biolumn. can be for research of diseases et al. But my question is how far are we from reproducing the exact same chemical combination in real life to substitute the bulbs and other light appliances around us in our daily life ? I've read that around 90 % of the energy in light bulbs are lost in the form of heat while biolums. gets you more than 95% energy efficiency.

I'm very curious. Please let me know ... Rakesh, 3 March 2006



I think that your idea was great because it helped me step by step do the experiment for my science fair project.Thanks ... Nicole Smith, 3 October 2006



This is a sesational project and I think that its awesome that you came up with it!!! ... Reader on the web, 13 December 2007


Somebody's picture


Where would you get these ingredients to do this experiment? Please someone answer A.S.A.P

swagana's picture

can you make plants glow?

Hi i am 11 years old and i am doing an elementary science fair i just wanted to know if other living things that don't glow can glow by humans finding different ways to inject glow protien into a plant for example. [:

Cheyenne zeigler's picture

Loving subject

Love what I'm doing thanks for having it..

Serendip Visitor's picture

could have had more on

could have had more on bioluminescence in general instead of focusing mainly on fireflies.

Katie's picture


this helped me a ton on my firefly/bio-luminescence project for gr.8 :) are there any experiments regarding fireflies i could show my class? that would be wicked awesome cool aka WAC!!! lolz!!! thnx again

Jackie's picture

I'm honestly curious now! x]]

Hey, I was looking up firefly bioluminescence and I came across this page. We're going over something like this in school (I'm a Sophomore) and I was just wondering if Fireflies create their own chemicals or if they depend on bacteria for their light?

Anonymous123's picture


where r the materials nedded ???>

big D's picture

heat signatures

its not a comment its a question....

do bioluminescent animals give off a different heat signature

i really hope someone can answer this for me

Anonymous's picture

hey looks like im just one

hey looks like im just one of the many doing a science project on bio luminescence and although i have lots of info from some great articles like yours i do not have an experiment to conduct !!!!! i noticed that other commenter s have claimed to have great ideas for experiments and am requesting that if at all possible they would share them with me !!!! any info, ideas or links would be greatly appreciated!!!!!
thanks from anonymous!!!!

SarahRoberts5672's picture


Hi. Im Sarah and im in 6th grade this year we have a scrience fair for our school and all of the 6th graders have to be involved in it. I was going through at least 20 different websites and almost everytime ive seen "How Are Fireflies Able To Glow?" and I thought " okay if this project is really popular on sites and hasnt ever been done in my school im going to check it out and see what it is." so i clicked on the webpage and it brought me to this and ive read everything Ive found about Fireflies but it doesnt say HOW they glow ,and after reading this page I have been pretty dead set on doing my project on fireflies i just cant find out how fireflies glow! - please help me!!!! =]

Mad's picture

Ok it might be a bit late

Ok it might be a bit late that I'm telling you this, but if you still wanted to know HOW they glowed, I did a term paper on biolumenescence. If you wanted more info you could try this source:
or here is a clip from my paper: The definition of bioluminescence is a form of light produced by living organisms. It is caused when two chemicals react with one another. The first chemical is known as a luciferin. This is the chemical that controls the pigment and colorization of the light. The other chemical is called a luciferase. This is the substance that actually catalyzes the chemical reaction. When these chemicals are mixed together in the presence of oxygen, light is produced. This light glow is what we know as bioluminescence.
again I might be a little late.

Anonymous's picture



Fireflies, The deep sea dragon, Jelly fish
All these animals are bioluminescent meaning they produce there own light using a bacteria or liquid. Most use bacteria due to so much are limited with the liquid.
Firflies are a great example of a bioluminescent living organism.

Devon's picture

your idea

oh em ge
I love this experiment!
I was always wondering and asking my mother how they lite their little butts up!!
And now that i found this experiment i can figure out how. Im doing this experiment for the science fair!!

Anonymous's picture

firefly experiment

Hi -- Can you share your experiment regarding bioluminescence? It does not appear on the website.

Anonymous's picture

i need more info on how to

i need more info on how to do this project please[:

Anonymous's picture

please if you found a way to

please if you found a way to actually do the project please help me. my son decide to this project and i am clueless on how to

Anonymous's picture

i need more info how to do

i need more info how to do the project:)

bob's picture

how far are we from reproducing

how far are we from reproducing the exact same chemical combination in real life to substitute the bulbs and other light appliances

great article

Anonymous's picture


I would like to know more about how to do this expieriment and i think i am going to do it for a special science media project.

synthia's picture

more info please

hey just wanted to say if you could add more info because i can't understand it also if i can't understand i can't do it for my science experiment.

flies project's picture

I would like to know how did

I would like to know how did you test and what did u use

kianti's picture

Do you have any project

Do you have any project ideas

Anonymous's picture

no sorry I don't have one

no sorry I don't have one but I wish I did