Luciferin and GFP: The Fluorescent Chemicals Used by Insects, Sea Creatures and Humans! (McGill OSS)

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5 minute read

How do fireflies create their telltale glow? It differs slightly depending on species—there are more than 2000 species of fireflies found across the world, including many that do not glow—but the one we know the most about is the North American Firefly (Photinus pyralis). It uses a molecule named luciferin and its enzyme buddy luciferase. Luciferase reacts with luciferin, causing it to break down into two compounds and release CO2 One of those two compounds has a bit of excess energy that it releases as light!

The production of this light has three requirements, other than luciferin and luciferase: magnesium, oxygen and ATP. That ATP requirement is a big part of why the luciferin assay has become an important tool for biochemical research. Adenosine-5′-triphosphate (ATP) is the universal “energy molecule” of all forms of life. So, luciferase and luciferin can be used to test if something like a cell is alive and still producing ATP.

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One group of fireflies, however, use their glowing abdomens to hunt. Females of the genus Photuris engage in aggressive mimicry by imitating the flashing patterns of other species’ females to lure and eat the males who seek mates.

Unfortunately, due to habitat loss and climate change, firefly numbers are declining across much of the world. The lack of appropriate green spaces for fireflies to live and mate is compounded by the sedentary nature of many firefly species. The larvae of the common European glow-worm are reported to move only about 5 meters (16.4 feet) per hour. Light pollution as well may be impacting fireflies’ ability to thrive. In one study, light pollution reduced the flashing of Photuris versicolor by almost 70%.

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