Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Flash of Knowledge...

Staying in a college hostel as an undergraduate, meant you went home during vacations, and thanks to my father's transferable job, I often ended up going to new places, most of them in mofussil areas.

This was the late 60's.  The living spaces were all in special colonies, some with old British style houses, with  wildly growing gardens, and very often, a very propah club, where you went in the evenings to play badminton, talk, and watch folks playing bridge and argue about calls. Typically in the outskirts of small towns, with hardly any traffic, and then there were the fireflies !  No, we didn't catch them and put them in bottles, but always marvelled at the scene and wondered, as we walked home through the trees...

I remembered the fireflies, when I recently came across this wonderful visual above (with explanations) , posted by my FB friend Suhas Baljekar .....

Lots of fires and flies in Mumbai today, but a sad lack of fireflies.  

 I learnt how these insects had really, one of the most energy efficient lighting systems .

And there was actually a  Devil in the Details.....

Fireflies contain a pigment called Luciferon. In the presence of a body enzyme called Luciferase, a dollop of ATP (Adenosine triphosphate, which is like an energy molecule) and oxygen, the pigment oxidises  to create light

There are several theories about how the fireflies set the light on and off, having to do with controlling oxygen, or the nerve cells , but what is very noteworthy, is that the production of light here is very efficient. 100% of the energy is light energy here, with no wastage in the form of heat. In a normal light bulb , 10% of its energy is light, with 90% being wasted as heat ....

Turns out , that all this flashing around of light by the fireflies, has a purpose. Firefly larvae use this light to tell predators that they have defensive chemicals, bad taste, and they better stay away. When worried, the larvae also increase the frequency and intensity of glow. Male fireflies,  flying around ,send flashing glow signals in specific patterns at certain times at night, to stationary female fireflies, who fittingly respond only after a  fixed time delay.  There is much flashy communication between the two, before the male finally decides to  come down and meet.

This bioluminescence , as the glowing is termed, serves various purposes like camouflage, attraction, repulsion, communication and illumination.

 Scientists at Syracuse University found a new way to harness the natural light produced by fireflies using nanoscience. Their breakthrough produces a system that is 20 to 30 times more efficient than those produced during previous experiments. Using different lengths of what they call nanorods, they are able to produce  different colors in the visible spectrum, as well as in the invisible spectrum.  And it is all about converting chemical energies to light .

   Scientists can now identify the gene that causes the glowing in the firefly, and this DNA structure  can be cloned into a host using what is called Recombinant Gene technology,(  joining together of DNA molecules from two different species that are inserted into a host organism to produce new genetic combinations that are of value to science, medicine, agriculture, and industry.)

Which opens up a world of possibilities.

-You can have trees that light up at night , without having to be electrically wired . Think of a onetime cost, and no maintenance.Think of kids in unelectrified areas , or areas with electric load shedding , being able to study when they want, not decided by official fellows who did bad resources planning.

- You can have plants that glow a certain color when they are in need of watering. Think of less wastage of water and optimum irrigation based on types of plants.

-- You can have certain cells in your body organs light up whenever certain conditions are true. (There are some cancer treatments currently being experimented  using the glow factor to highlight the cancerous cells to the medication being injected)

- We have several hormones in our body, the dynamic balance of which greatly affects our physical and mental well being. When the values go haywire, we do not realize it till we see some physical symptoms like hypoglycemia(low sugar),  hypo and hyperthyroidism (many symptoms), anxiety/depression/panic (serotonin levels), kinases (muscle breakup enzyme found in liver)....  

 What would be nice if some kind of light could alert us to any immediate sustained  change in these levels or an imbalance.  In an age when pacemakers are installed in chests and insulin is released through skin patches, some kind of standard nano chip in the human body should not be difficult.
Like something that senses blockages/inflammations in  key areas , and alerts us, and we don't end up waiting till we actually get a stroke or a heart attack. (It is well known that medical intervention in the first 90 minutes of an episode, leads to a better prognosis).

I wonder if this glowing light firefly technology, can be used to monitor early dangerous changes in brain activity. 

 Like fear, violence, anger, sorrow and so on.   Scientists are today able to pinpoint parts of the brain that deal with these emotions. I wonder if something can alert us , by lighting up to indicate abnormal situations.  Even for situations like a beginning of schizophrenia, depression, and so on.

I wonder if at some point we will be able to save lives by preempting some one's violent behaviour, and stop someone from behaving irrationally in the face of fear.  I wonder if we can personalize education across a set of children with a spectrum of various abilities, by being aware of changes before they physically manifest themselves in a person .

A kind of real time monitoring of folks before things get serious in anatomical terms.

Of course it is impossible to have an Utopian life , where there are no problems, or easy solutions exist for all problems. If life was all about Utopia, there wouldn't have been any reason for research, and effort at learning.

So, it is very interesting to note, that the fireflies, who we try to applaud and emulate for their glowing abilities and technology,   are not such saints themselves. 

And they have possibly learned something from other species.

Turns out that Female Photuris fireflies are known for mimicking the mating flashes of other "lightning bugs" for the sole purpose of predation. Target males are attracted to what appears to be a suitable mate, and are then eaten.

 For this reason the Photuris species are sometimes referred to as "femme fatale fireflies."

Ah ! A bit of reverse engineering and adulation,  that ...... 


  1. Where do u come up with these innovative ideas!! :D Brilliant!

    Hmm the mention of 'fireflies' brought pleasant memories of my childhood in Kerala. Don't remember seeing any firefly at all in Mumbai though :-( There are fires and flies, but no fireflies...so true.

  2. Wonderful! Loved reading it. Who know, science may someday take us to a time where these things are commonplace. After all, just a century or so ago, things like flying to the moon, mobile phones or the internet would have seemed like asking for the impossible!

  3. Wow, amazing post, nice integration of facts and possibilities.

  4. You are an amazing writer.
    So much I learn from you.
    All I know is that I love watching the area around my cottage
    light up with the "lightning bugs"
    Childhood memories emerge as I remembered - I would catch them and put them in a jar...

  5. Reminded me of the days we learnt nanotechnology and Extended release medicines. Great post. Possibilities are endless, if someone works :-)

  6. Ek sci-fi book toh banta hai!Seriously,you have excellent imagination suranga..enjoyed reading.

  7. innovative, insightful, thoughtful and what a way to convey ! :D I wonder if I will ever see fireflies like those again ! gee... it looks like an unreal picture !

  8. Science has taken the firefly to heights that it could never fly and reach. Science is often the bedrock of imagination. Or perhaps the other way around.

    If only we pause and lead all our lives with imagination of a future that 'can be', how wonderful would that be!