Take My Love, Take My Land, Take My… Bioluminescence?

There’s a lovely little song that contains the lines:

Beautiful things never last
That’s why fireflies flash

Yeah, well, maybe that’s true… until SCIENCE gets involved.

Scientists at Syracuse University have developed a new method of harnessing firefly bioluminescence using specially made quantum nanorods. What’s their secret?

It turns out, when it comes to nanorods, size really does matter.

Actually, size is only part of the equation. The structure of the Syracuse nanorods is also very important. The nanorods are composed of two semiconductor metals- cadmium sulfide on the outside, with a cadmium seleneide nougat center. But neither of those are what actually create light. For that, we have to turn back to the fireflies that were the inspiration.

Firefly flashes are created when luciferin and luciferase undergo a chemical reaction in their little abdomens. So, the Syracuse group figured they’d use the same formula to create their own luminous nanorods. They, as Mathew Maye, one of the scientists involved, stated, “designed a way to chemically attach genetically manipulated luciferase enzymes directly to the surface of the nanorod.” So, they essentially made nanorods smeared in fancy enzymic goodness. Add a little luciferin later and BAM! The chemicals react and the light energy created is transferred into those specially designed nanorods, causing them to glow.

But that’s just a replication of what nature already accomplished. Remember how I said their nanorods are special? By manipulating the size of the core and the length of the rod, the scientists can actually make their nanorods glow different colors. Fireflies only manage a yellowish flash. The Syracuse team made their nanorods glow green, orange, and red… they also managed to create near-infrared light, which is certainly not possible for fireflies (the little devils only create a “cold light” which is devoid of infrared or ultraviolet frequencies).

The scientists are still working with the nanorods, hoping to increase the length of glow time and the overall scale of the project. One day, maybe those twinkling lights on our Christmas trees will be made of the same stuff that make fireflies shine during the summer months.

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