Research team unlocks secrets of the firefly flash

New study sheds light on fireflies research team unlocks secrets of the firefly flash

Light fades from the summer sky, and the spectacular light show put on by thousands of fireflies begins. While these remarkable bioluminescent insects have inspired poets and delighted children for centuries, it has been a long-standing mystery as to exactly how they manage to blink their lights so precisely.

An interdisciplinary team of researchers from Tufts University and Brigham and Women's Hospital joined forces to solve this intriguing puzzle. This week's issue of the journal Science reports their discovery--that a deceptively simple molecule, nitric oxide, unexpectedly plays a key role in controlling the firefly flash.

"We knew about the chemistry that makes fireflies light up," says Barry Trimmer, lead author and insect neurobiologist at Tufts, "but we now have the missing piece of the puzzle that explains how they are able to throw the switch on and off."

In humans, nitric oxide (NO) acts as a messenger throughout the body, controlling blood flow in the body as well as mediating learning and memory. According to Thomas Michel, a cardiologist at Brigham and Women's Hospital and co-author, NO is unique: "It's the smallest molecule known to carry messages between cells, and it is a gas."

In addition to shedding new light on how it is that fireflies control their flashing, this work hails a new role for nitric oxide. While this chemical has recently gained fame for carrying messages between cells, most notably for treating erectile dysfunction, it now has a new role in helping to carry messages between individual fireflies.

Many animals, including jellyfish and bacteria, are capable of the seemingly magical feat of converting chemical energy into a bioluminescent glow. "However," notes co-author Sara Lewis, an evolutionary ecologist at Tufts University, "the firefly's talent for producing precisely-tim

Contact: Randell Kennedy
Tufts University

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