The Mystery of the Glow-in-the-Dark Civil War Soldiers

The American Civil War Battle of Shiloh left 16,000 soldiers dead and 3,000 soldiers wounded, and some of those wounded soldiers are part of an odd mystery. Some of the soldiers had eerily glowing wounds, which healed more quickly than the non-glowing wounds. So what strange battlefield science was at work?

It took two days and nights for the medics to reach all of the wounded soldiers in Shiloh, and some of the soldiers noticed that their wounds glowed in the darkness. Because the glowing wounds healed more quickly and cleanly, the mysterious force was termed "Angel's Glow."

It wasn't until 2001 that this 1862 mystery was finally solved. Seventeen-year-old Bill Martin was visiting Shiloh with his family, where he heard about the strange glow. His mother, microbiologist at the USDA Agricultural Research Service, had studied luminescent bacteria, and Martin wondered if similar bacteria might have been at work. With his friend Jon Curtis, Martin researched Photorhabdus luminescens, a type of bacteria that lives in the guts of parasitic nematodes. When nematodes vomit up the glowing bacteria, P. luminescens kills the other microbes living in the nematoad's host.

Normally, P. luminescens couldn't live in the human body since it dies at human body temperature. But Martin and Curtis, studying the historical records and the conditions in Shiloh, realized that the nighttime temperatures were low enough for the soldiers to develop hypothermia, allowing the bacteria to thrive in their bodies, kill off competing bacteria, and perhaps save the lives of their human hosts.

For solving this decades old mystery, Curtis and Martin won first place in the 2001 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair.

Why Some Civil War Soldiers Glowed in the Dark [mental_floss]