Fireflies are known for their luminescent nighttime glow, but how does this phenomenon work? Scientists from Switzerland and Taiwan set out to unravel the mystery.

Fireflies used rapid light flashes to communicate. An organ called the "lantern," located in the insect's abdomen, is what allows fireflies to radiate in this way via the light-producing enzyme luciferase. But the lantern is highly complex and contains numerous tubes, some of which are ten thousand times smaller than a millimeter and thus invisible to experimental probes. Until now, this has prevented researchers from studying the mechanism more in-depth.

Using two advanced imaging techniques - called synchrotron phase contrast microtomography and transmission x-ray microscopy - the international research team was able to get an up-close-and-personal look inside a single cell and better understand just how fireflies light get their bioluminescence.

The findings were published in the journal Physical Review Letters.

Fireflies emit light when a compound called luciferin breaks down. Scientists know that this reaction needs oxygen, but what they didn't know was how fireflies actually supply oxygen to their light-emitting cells.

According to the study, state-of-the-art-imaging revealed that oxygen distribution is key to being able to light up their cells. Fireflies divert oxygen from other cellular functions and put it towards the reaction that breaks up luciferin. Specifically, the researchers found that oxygen consumption in the cell decreased, slowing down energy production. At the same time, oxygen supply switched to light-emission.

This is the first time that researchers have studied a firefly's lantern in such detail.

"The techniques we used have an advantage over, say, conventional x-ray techniques, which cannot easily distinguish between soft tissues. By using an approach based on changes in light intensity (phase-contrast) as opposed to light absorption (x-rays), we were able to achieve high-resolution imaging of the delicate firefly lantern," researcher Giorgio Margaritondo explained in a press release.

By solving the riddle of what makes fireflies glow, scientists hope to put this phenomenon to practical use, with potential applications including drug testing, monitoring water contamination, and even lighting up streets using glow-in-dark trees and plants.

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