Tag Archives: COVID-19

How fireflies are helping us fight COVID-19

Illustration by David Goodsell

I’m doubly appreciative of fireflies this year, as they’ve given us two fabulous gifts. One, the incredible gift of wonder. The other gift is a tiny molecule, precious and pragmatic.

Luciferase is a light-producing enzyme that was invented by fireflies. Over eons of evolution, it’s been fine-tuned to help fireflies find mates and avoid predators. And now this firefly enzyme has been harnessed by humans to help us fight against the global pandemic of COVID-19.

Photo: Radim Schreiber

Surely it seems like magic, but firefly light comes from a carefully orchestrated chemical reaction that happens inside the firefly’s lantern. Luciferase hosts the party, inviting multiple guests (including ATP, oxygen, magnesium, and a much smaller molecule called luciferin), then sparking them to engage in a scintillating conversation that gets them excited enough to give off light.

Ever since its discovery in the late 1940s, firefly luciferase has been harnessed by scientists to improve human health. Early on it got used in food safety testing to detect good food gone bad – that is, food that’s been contaminated by microbes and so is unsafe for human consumption. To test meat, diary and soft drinks, kits made from firefly-derived chemicals would light up to show if a sample was contaminated with even tiny amounts of harmful bacteria. Similar kits were used by the pharmaceutical industry to measure cell viability when they tested anti-tumor drugs. Surprisingly, for over 30 years every smidgeon of luciferase that went into these kits came from wild fireflies harvested by collectors all across the U.S.

Each summer the Sigma Chemical Company recruited a small army of collectors that got paid ~50 cents per 100 fireflies; a $20 bonus awaited anyone who sent in 200,000 fireflies. All told, Sigma extracted luciferase from about 90 million wild-caught fireflies!! (Yes, I know it’s hard to believe. But you can find out more about bounty-hunting fireflies in Silent Sparks Chapter 8: Lights Out for Fireflies? or this story in Atlas Obscura). Quite fortunately for U.S. fireflies and their fans, in the 1990’s scientists finally decoded the DNA sequence that fireflies use to make luciferase. Using harmless bacteria as a bioproduction platform, synthetic luciferase soon became widely available.

SARS-CoV-2 virus – public enemy #1

Fireflies have enabled many advances in public health and medicine. Once the luciferase gene (this gene’s nickname is luc) was deciphered, the scientific and biomedical uses for firefly luciferase skyrocketed. Widely used as a genetic “reporter”, luc can be spliced together with any other target gene that scientists might want to study. Whenever the target gene gets activated, luc acts like a spy who reports back by emitting light, which can be quickly and easily measured using sensitive cameras.

Right now, firefly luc is helping us to understand and fight public enemy #1, the SARS-CoV-2 virus that’s responsible for the global pandemic of COVID-19.

A first step to conquering this deadly disease is understanding how the SARS-CoV-2 virus enters and replicates inside host cells. Researchers at Texas Medical Center have studied this process using pseudotyped viral particles. They grafted the S-protein from SARS-CoV-2 onto an innocuous virus, then added firefly luc as genetic reporter. When these pseudo-typed viruses attacked a cultured host cell, luc announced the attack loud and clear: the replicating virus particles emitted light, which could be measured very accurately to determine virus replication rates.

In a completely different application, a research team in Japan has combined luciferase with a fluorescent protein to invent a very sensitive antibody test. Their test quickly detects multiple antibodies using just a tiny drop of blood, and the results are read using a smartphone app. As scientists race to figure out how to treat and prevent COVID-19, it seems that fireflies may help us win this fight.

These beloved insects have given us so much – the gift of wonder + the gift of light. We owe them a huge debt of gratitude, so the least we can do is preserve them for future generations to enjoy. And who knows what other chemical riches lie waiting to be discovered within the firefly pharmacopiea?


Help Us Keep the Firefly Magic Alive!

Meet Yogi Firefly by SketchesInStillness

“The broken world waits in darkness for the light that is you”

L.R. Knost

In 2020 the global pandemic of COVID-19 truly broke apart our world. This summer, when our days are filled with anxiety and despair, how can we find the courage to continue doing the work needed to repair the world?

Some people think fireflies are just tiny insects, but for me they’re so much more! They are luminous beings whose natural magic inspires optimism and hope even during the darkest times. That’s why we’ve chosen Hope Rising as the theme for World Firefly Day 2020.

While we celebrate on July 4-5 (also Independence Day in the U.S.), scientists around the world are working hard to develop a vaccine that will protect humanity from this deadly disease. At the same time, we’re working hard to preserve these hope-filled sparks for future generations to enjoy. Even though fireflies have simple needs – water, food, and shelter – they face major threats from loss of suitable habitat, light pollution, and widespread pesticide use.

Here are some simple things we all can do to help fireflies survive:

  • Protect their homes: help preserve the places where fireflies thrive.
  • Turn off the lights: too much light at night disrupts firefly courtship.
  • Don’t use pesticides in your lawn or garden: neonics and other insecticides harm juvenile fireflies.

And please help us spread the word by sharing more tips for creating more firefly-friendly places with others in your Home Owner’s Association, garden club, neighborhood, or town.

Because who’d want to live in a world without fireflies?

Learn more about how you can protect fireflies in Silent Sparks (Chapter 8 : Lights Out for Fireflies?)

World Firefly Day 2020: Hope Rising!

Since 2017, the Fireflyers International Network has been sponsoring World Firefly Day, held during the first weekend in July. In previous years, people all over the world have come together to joyfully celebrate the magic and the science of fireflies with festivals, talks, and other events taking place in Malaysia, Thailand, China, Belgium, Mexico, USA, and many other countries. More than mere insects, these luminous beings help keep us connected to Earth’s natural magic.

During 2020, the global coronavirus pandemic has profoundly disrupted our lives. It has taken away loved ones and livelihoods, spread grief and despair, and divided us from family and friends. We wake each day heavy-hearted, weighed down by the gravity of the news. To confront these dark times, we have chosen to center World Firefly Day 2020 around Hope Rising!

Icons of summer, harbingers of monsoons, for centuries these beloved insects have sparked joy and inspired wonder for people all over the world. During these dark times, fireflies also remind us of the great resilience of the natural world, so full of life! So we celebrate them this year as tiny beacons of hope, sparkling lights carrying a promise that humanity will emerge into a brighter future.

Because festivals and gatherings have been cancelled, World Firefly Day 2020 will be celebrated virtually with videos, music, and presentations posted on FIN’s Youtube channel and on FIN Facebook. If you can’t enjoy real fireflies this year, please join our virtual celebration by sharing your firefly stories, poems, photos and artwork with your fellow firefly enthusiasts on FIN Facebook!

Flickr: Steven David Johnson
Flickr: Steven David Johnshon

When everything has been turned topsy-turvy, tuning in to nature’s rhythms can provide comfort and consolation. With summer camps cancelled and vacations vanished, many of us are preparing to spend this summer at home. So how about a staycation with fireflies? Step out into the night and look for fireflies in your backyard or local park. Camp out with the kids & catch some fireflies in a jar (remember to keep them happy with an apple slice or some damp paper towel).  Grab a penlight and practice some lightningbug linguistics. Join the citizen scientists over at Firefly Watch and help us keep track of long-term trends in your local firefly populations.

Stay safe, be well, find joy – we will recover, we will rise up & shine brightly once again!