Friday, 21 August 2015

The alluring firefly: nature's lightning bug may hold key to medical breakthroughs

The role of light in the mating rituals of adult fireflies was little understood until recently, but now scientists want to use bioluminescence for a host of potential medical procedures – including tagging tumors to monitor them

Jane McInnis in Tlaxcala, Mexico

Wednesday 19 August 2015 14.00 BST

In a green clearing within the forest of Tlaxcala, Mexico, a campground waited for the sun to set.

Swarms of moms and dads stood next to abuelas nonchalantly chewing tamales from a nearby stand. Wriggling niños flipped flashlights on and off, while overflowing trashcans marked meeting points.

They waited for the woods to turn black to see the dance of the fireflies. Every summer in this region, males perform a primordial rave of flashing lights to attract females.

Aztecs referred to the bioluminescent beetles as tiny lights of truth in a world of ignorance, according to the late entomologist Charles L Hogue. Perhaps the Aztecs were also predicting the lasting enigma of the popular insect.

Only recently are medical possibilities of bioluminescence being researched by scientists, from illuminating tumors in cancer patients to spotlighting bacteria levels in packaged meat.

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