Photograph by Javier Calvelo /Uruguayan Animal Reproduction Institute via EPA

What Fireflies and Jellyfish Show Us

  1. Glowing Baah

    Glowing Baah

    When Alba, the fluorescent bunny, was shown as art in 2000, there was a lot of blowback about the gene manipulation that created her—white-rabbit genes spliced with a fluorescent gene found in jellyfish. A lucky 13 years later, and we have all sorts of uses for glowing genes, thanks to jellyfish, squid, fireflies, and algae.

    Born in October 2012, this sheep, like the rabbit, only “glows” when under fluorescent light. Unlike the rabbit, the sheep has a greater purpose, which, according to the creators at the Uraguayan Animal Reproduction Institute, is for medical research.

    Photograph by Javier Calvelo /Uruguayan Animal Reproduction Institute via EPA
  2. Gloriously Green

    Gloriously Green

    Aequorea victoria is the species of jellyfish that provided the green fluorescent protein (GFP) that is a valuable marker in biotechnology. The first discovery of GFP as a laboratory tool was by Osamu Shimomura, Martin Chalfie, and Roger Tsien, who received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2008 for this discovery.

    Photograph by Charles Mazel/Visuals Unlimited, Inc.
  3. Brainbow


    The green fluorescent protein allowed scientists at Harvard to genetically modify mice. A cross section of a modified mouse’s cerebral cortex from the brain shows us a “map” neural circuits, which allows us to see complex systems of neurons clearly. This clarity could prove an important tool in understanding neurodegenerative diseases such as Huntington’s, Parkinson's, and Alzheimer’s. With a large aging population in the U.S., these studies could prove financially vital to our health-care system.

    Photograph by Livet, Draft, Weissman, Sanes, Lichtman/Harvard University
  4. This Creature is Stirring

    This Creature is Stirring

    An iridescent mouse and much-cherished pet belonging to Connecticut College chemistry professor Marc Zimmer and his family, named Glowy Nibbles, glows under a black light at Connecticut College's Hale Laboratory in New London. "Glowy is a pet," Zimmer says, "but he represents what's being done in the field of bioluminescence, which spans a wide area of science from biology to pure physics." Studies of mice like him may allow us to genetically mark for many diseases and even stop malaria from spreading via mosquito.

    Photograph by Tim Cook/The Day via AP Photo
  5. Cat Glow

    Cat Glow

    The Mayo Clinic’s Eric Poeschla inserted a rhesus macaque gene into unfertilized cat eggs. Then the jellyfish protein GDP was added to monitor the gene under certain light. This resulted in glow-in-the-dark kittens that produced the antiviral protein for feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV), which may help develop protection for humans from HIV/AIDS.

    Photograph by Mark Thiessen/National Geographic Images
  6. Night Lights

    Night Lights

    The study of the chemical luciferase in fireflies is leading to many possible uses in advancing science. Just as male fireflies use the chemical processed with oxygen to attract a mate, we use it as an investigation tool. You’ve seen luminol used on almost every crime scene on television, as the spray that, when exposed to oxygen and then viewed under a special light, provides the ability to see bodily fluids and blood.

    Photograph by Studio Sato/Corbis
  7. Life Finder

    Life Finder

    The same principle applies to finding biological evidence as it does at finding life in general— even in space. By using modified luciferase that can function at higher temperature, it may be possible to include the testing substance on a NASA robot, such as the Mars Rover, and check for signs of life.

    Photograph by Artist's Concept/NASA/ESA/STScI
  8. Cancer Killer

    Cancer Killer

    Researchers from London’s National Medical Laser Centre inserted the firefly gene that activates bioluminescent light into modified cancer cells. The thinking was that luciferin would cause the modified cancer cells to glow. When a photosensitizing agent was added, the combination proved lethal.

    “The cells produced enough light to trigger their own death,” says Dr. Theodossis Theodossiou. Their results were published in the journal Cancer Research.

    Photograph by Steve Gschmeissner
  9. Muscle Assist

    Muscle Assist

    At the Stanford University School of Medicine, scientists included the firefly’s glow on mouse models of muscular dystrophy. Only the muscular tissue that degenerated emitted light, making it easier to monitor the disease’s progress.

    Understanding the degenerative process could aid in fighting the disease—currently, no effective treatments for the disease exist.

    Photograph by Patrick Landmann/Science Source
  10. No Batteries Required

    No Batteries Required

    There is more to learning from fireflies than just the chemical composition of luciferase. The lighting up takes place in cells called photocytes and is then emitted through the exoskeleton’s cuticle. Looking under an electron microscope, researchers found that the cuticles were jagged, allowing for release of more light

    The GaN LED here is modeled after the fireflies’ scales and increased light extraction by 50 percent.

    Photograph by Nicolas André