Who would have ever suspected that the magical, glowing fireflies gracing the night sky could be capable of saving human life, and are now being used in medical research laboratories around the world? The significance of bioluminescence is increasing, making the firefly's impact on science and medicine clearer to scientists every day. Firefly bioluminescence is used in the study of various different medical conditions and medical fields such as heart disease, muscular dystrophy, urology, antibiotic testing, tuberculosis, AIDS and cancer research, to name just a few.
Scientists think the chemical reaction causing bioluminescence might help track the effectiveness of cancer drugs. For example, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center scientists altered human breast cancer tumors to carry the firefly gene. They then implanted the tumors in mice, which then emitted light. By tracking how much light was emitted in mice, scientists were able to track the size of the tumor. Hopefully, procedures such as this will allow scientists to become more efficient in their preclinical experiments. Another way in which scientists are using bioluminescence is to fight tuberculosis. For example, if luciferase (enzyme) is added to a cultured sample of tuberculosis, and an antibiotic also is added, the strength of the antibiotic can be tested. If the antibiotic fails, the bacteria will continue to glow. This method will allow researchers and doctors to cut the time needed for drug treatments to three days instead of three months for patients fighting tuberculosis. Synthetic varieties of bioluminescence are used in many other ways by scientists as well. For example, scientists are using bioluminescent organisms to synthetically trace ATP and calcium in cells, in order to illustrate the progress of infection, allowing assistance in AIDS research.
Bioluminescent organisms of all types, including fireflies, are a target for many areas of research. Some of the future plans scientists have proposed for the use of synthetic bioluminescence include, but are not limited to, glowing trees to line highways to save money on electric bills, crops and domestic plants that light up when they need watering, new methods for detecting bacterial contamination of meats and other foods, and even Christmas trees that will not need lights, thereby reducing the risk of electrical fires. While scientists are making great discoveries in regard to bioluminescence and fireflies, it is safe to say there is still a lot more to learn, and many new and exciting discoveries to be made.