Lightning Bugs Shed Light On Disease

By Alyssa Edmunds

One of my favorite summer activities is catching lightning bugs. I am so fascinated by their luminous glow. A few days ago I caught my first lightning bug of the summer, which led me to do some research about what causes these insects to glow.

I stumbled upon a National Geographic article entitled “How Do Fireflies Glow? Mystery Solved After 60 Years.” Scientists have known that oxygen and luciferin are largely responsible for lightning bugs’ bioluminescence, but it’s extremely unlikely that these two together would produce the light necessary for their glow, as oxygen and luciferin tend to only react with themselves. However, a recent experiment found that the lightning bug’s glow is actually due to a superoxide anion, which contains the properties of both oxygen and luciferin.

What I found most interesting about this study is the benefits this bioluminescence has in medicine. The luciferin found in lightning bugs is being used in imaging tumors and in cancer medication. Furthermore, luciferin was used to study the brains of rats and it is predicted that it will one day be used to better understand the human brain. It’s exciting to learn that future generations might be able to better treat diseases of the brain because of those little glowing creatures!

This short video from American Chemical Society further explains the glow.


alyssa edmunds2Alyssa Edmunds is Chemical Processing’s social media intern and a student at The Ohio State University. She is studying Actuarial Science. During the summer months you can find her outside chasing bugs.