luciferin, luciferase, etymology, & innuendo

luciferin, luciferase, etymology, & innuendo

On Friday we went for a walk in the Karangahake Gorge, and were very happy to discover (during the Windows Walk) that there are glow-worms in the darker parts of the mine workings. (Strictly speaking they’re glow-maggots as they’re the larvae of small flies/midges, but that is perhaps less attractive to the ear 🙂 )

These little creatures live in tubes of silk, spun along the cave/tunnel ceiling, and let down long silk threads that are coated with sticky mucus. The blue glow each larva emits from its abdomen attracts insects, which get caught in these threads & provide it with a good meal.

But how do glow worms (& other bioluminescent creatures) make the light? This is due to a chemical reaction involving a protein called luciferin, an enzyme called luciferase, oxygen, and a small energy-carrying molecule called ATP. The luciferin is a product of other cellular reactions, and it’s broken apart by luciferase (using the O2 and ATP) in a way that produces light. If you’re interested in the details of this reaction there’s an excellent explanation in this Scientific American article. This is an example of bioluminescence, which is a relatively common phenomenon in the natural world, and the names of the first two reactants on my list reflect this. They’re both derived from the Old English word lucifer, itself derived from the Latin words lux and -fer, meaning light-carrier.

The luciferin-luciferase reaction also has a range of applications, both in research and in commercial use. It can be used to study gene expression, for example, and in the assessment of how well drugs work against the bacterium that causes tuberculosis. It’s also been applied to non-invasive studies in small animals, as the light this reaction produces (e.g. at internal tumour sites) can be detected – using very sensitive equipment – from the outside of the animal. (You’ll see my blog-buddy Siouxsie Wiles on the list of authors for the second & third of those links.)

Now, all this is fascinating stuff and there’s some excellent science going on in this space.

However, and unfortunately, some people have taken the names of those two chemicals, luciferin and luciferase, and run with them to use in attacking one of the scientists¹ using them in her research (see the example below). Their wild claims have precisely zero to do with the science relating to bioluminescence, and its applications, and everything to do with what might be called shooting the messenger, achieved by apparently willful misunderstanding what the chemical names mean & how they’re derived.

Now, on that same post there’s someone saying that we should be able to question the science. And I hope that no-one disputes that, though I’d also hope for informed questioning rather than the ‘just asking questions’ sort. But the unfortunate reality is that – on this post as on so many others – actual informed questioning isn’t happening. Which is a pity, because if it was I think quite a few scientists would be quite happy to respond. Instead, what we see all too often is a rapid swivel to attacking the actual person by using statements about their appearance and claims about their professionalism, their research, or that they’re a shill for Big <insert name here>. And that’s not questioning, that is bullying, pure & simple. Something that social media unfortunately makes all too easy from behind the anonymity of the keyboard.


¹ Yes, that would be Siouxsie.


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