How does a glowworm glow?

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For a long time, no one knew. But after a multi-year study, published in February in Scientific Reports, researchers at the University of Otago have finally figured out what produces New Zealand glowworms’ bioluminescent lures.

The glow is the result of a chemical reaction taking place in enzymes called luciferases. This is the same process that fireflies and other glowing creatures use to make their light, but New Zealand glowworms use a chemical that’s different from that of other bioluminescent organisms.

This chemical, called a luciferin, could be useful in medical biotechnology, says one of the study’s authors, biochemist Kurt Krause. “For instance, the light-generation taking place in the glowworm’s ‘taillight’ could potentially be used in the laboratory to monitor cancer cells to help identify infectious diseases.”

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