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Otago University scientist Dr Miriam Sharpe received funding in 2010 from the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology (FRST) to begin a 3-year study into which protein makes glow-worms’ tails glow.

It is believed that the light that makes glow-worms’ tails light up can be used to help monitor blood sugar levels in people with diabetes and the light-generating proteins can be used in research into cancer drug developments.

Proteins that give out light are already used in research around the world, but no studies have looked at whether the proteins that make glow-worms light up could work in a similar way.

Dr Sharpe said glow-worms should be able to offer a better alternative to the light-emitting proteins used at present. “I need to find the one of the thousands of proteins that makes them glow.”

Some species of insects that also radiate light such as fireflies have already been used to provide lights for scientific testing. However, their light was intermittent and weaker than that given out by glow-worms.

Since January, Dr Sharpe has been carrying out night-time trips in Dunedin to collect the little glow-worms that range from 0.5–2cm in length. Once she discovers which protein makes glow-worms glow, she hopes to purify and copy or clone it and find ways to manipulate it so it can be used to help monitor human medical conditions.

Glow-worms adjust the brightness of their glow according to the surroundings and also appear to shine more brightly when they are hungry. Dr Sharpe said it could be useful for researchers if they discovered how to control that process.

A potential use would be to develop a protein that responded to low blood sugar by glowing brightly, which could help diabetics monitor their blood sugar levels.

A FRST spokeswoman said Dr Sharpe’s research would lead to “bigger and brighter things” and boost New Zealand’s science capability. “Dr Sharpe exemplifies the type of highly talented and ambitious emerging researcher that these fellowships support.”

Related content

Find out more about glow-worms.

Useful links

This great video features biochemists Dr Miriam Sharpe and Dr Kurt Krause and their work in trying to discover the molecular basis for the glow worm's bioluminescence. This video looks at the project's next steps.

The results of this study can be found here.

After researching what make glow-worms glow, Miriam is now investigating the firefly squid, find out more in this RNZ programme, Glow in the dark - firefly squid and bioluminescence.

 

    Published 24 June 2010, Updated 13 June 2018 Referencing Hub articles