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  • Writer's pictureSinead Mackintosh


Fireflies have been dazzling and lighting up the night skies for millions of years. Scientists have long been using the enzyme (luciferase) that gives the fireflies their distinctive glow, but how this enzyme evolved in beetles is still a mystery. Luciferase is a type of bioluminescence (the production of light from a living organism). It is widely used in biotechnology (technology that uses biological processes to create products).

In an attempt to unravel this mystery, scientists sequenced the genomes of two firefly species that separated from each other more than 100 million years ago. The two chosen species were the North American firefly (“Photinus pyralis”) and the Japanese firefly (“Aquatica lateralis”). The scientists also looked at the genome of a related species of click beetle (“Ignelater luminosus”) with a different type of bioluminescence.

Fireflies use their light signals to find mates and ward off predators. Click beetles use luciferase for the same reasons, but the specialised organs that do this are entirely different. This suggests that the evolutionary origin of the gene for luciferase is different between fireflies and click beetles.

And this is precisely what the scientists found. They found that the luciferase genes were similar in the two firefly species but totally different from the click beetle gene. This suggests that bioluminescence evolved twice, once in an ancestor of fireflies and once in the ancestor of the click beetles that have bioluminescence.

This is useful because scientists use luciferase as a signalling molecule in the lab and particular cancer research. The enzyme lights up specific pathways that are being studied and track proteins. So maybe having different versions of the bioluminescent enzymes will help shed more light in future research.

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