A humble bug, famed light of love

Medicine & Science

July 26, 2004|By Michael Stroh

"The firefly's flame," Ogden Nash observed, "is something for which science has no name."

While that was true enough when the Baltimore poet penned that ode in 1937, today's researchers have come to understand a great deal about the celebrated twilight twinkling of these misnamed members of the beetle clan.

Like cicada song, firefly flickering is an instrument of seduction: expression of availability and desire reduced to a precise sequence of pyrotechnic bursts.

How fireflies generate these bursts remained a mystery until 1953, when American biochemist Arda Alden Green stumbled on a chemical called luciferase in light-producing cells on the insect's abdomen. When it combines with three other substances -- luciferin, oxygen and adenosine triphosphate -- it triggers a complex reaction that releases light energy.

Entomologists have identified 2,000 members of the family Lampyridae worldwide, about 10 percent of which live in the United States.

Fascination with the lightning bug's glow has spread well beyond the back yard. Today the bioluminescent substances derived from the insect are used for applications including monitoring the spread of cancer cells to detecting harmful bacteria in meat and dairy products.

So science might have caught up with Ogden Nash in the years since he penned "The Firefly." But it's difficult to argue with the poet's conclusion:

"I can think of nothing eerier," reads the final line, "than flying around with an unidentified glow on a person's posterior."

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