At last, the secrets of bioluminescence could find their way into consumer products

Scientists from Syracuse University have found a way to mimic the bioluminescent qualities of fireflies, a development that could lead to products with multicolor strings of light that don't require electricity or batteries to glow.

Fireflies have drawn the attention of scientists for quite some time now. Unlike most bioluminescent creatures, their light is extremely bright and efficient. Researchers have wanted in on the action, but have been largely unable to replicate these effects in the lab. But a research team led by Mathew Maye, an assistant professor of chemistry in SoU's College of Arts and Sciences, has essentially done it — and it was done with nanotechnology.

The UoS researchers observed that fireflies produce their light by virtue of a chemical reaction, the result of mixing luciferin and luciferase, which is an enzyme. In the lab, the researchers attached the enzyme to the surface of a nanorod, and then added the luciferin, thus fueling the process. This created a release of energy which was transferred to the nanorods, resulting that familiar, warm glow. They call the process Bioluminescence Resonance Energy Transfer (BRET), which, if you think about it, is a very sad way of describing something so very pretty.

At last, the secrets of bioluminescence could find their way into consumer products

Regardless, the system produces a result that is 20 to 30 times more efficient than those produced during previous experiments.

And it's the "quantum nanorods" that the researchers say made the difference - they had to get the size and structure just right to replicate the effects. Moreover, their system allowed them to produce colors that are not possible for fireflies. By manipulating the size and shape of the rods, they were able to produce green, orange, and red glows. They were also able to produce infrared illumination which is important for such things as night vision goggles and telescopes.

The tiny nanorods current exist only in the Syracuse laboratory, but it's hoped that this technology could eventually replace LEDs. Next steps for the researchers include figuring out a way to make the effect last longer, and to "scale up" the system.

Details of their breakthrough can be found in the May issue of Nano Letters.

Image via Shutterstock/Fer Gregory. Inset image via SciTechDaily/Syracuse University.