Tuesday, June 03, 2003

What are those sparks in the air?::

Two weekends ago I went to Iowa with Rachel to go to my friend's wedding. It was great to go back home. It felt very peaceful to be there. It was satisfying to see my old house where I grew up (lived there for 18 years), my old high school, the old hangout spots, the city park, etc.

So much has changed in Iowa City, especially the downtown area and the University of Iowa campus. I hardly recognize the place anymore.

One of the things that shocked me while there was the fireflies. Rachel and I drove to my old house and sat down across the street in the park for a minute. She thought that her eyes were going bad or something because she kept seeing little sparks all over the place. After a few minutes, the issue came up and I told her that they were lightning bugs making the little lights all over the place. She was amazed! We quickly got up and went around to catch a few and take a closer look.

I never realized that they don't have fireflies in Utah. I grew up with them, we'd catch them all the time when it was dark when I was a kid back in Iowa City - so it seemed like a normal part of life that I took for granted.

I was curious about how fireflies glow like that, so I did some research and apparently a US team of scientists were able to show in 2001 that the simple molecule nitric oxide (NO) acts as the on-off "button."

Whenever the fireflies were exposed to nitric oxide they glowed or flashed almost continuously, and they stopped once the nitric oxide was turned off. The molecule causes oxygen-consuming components on the edge of light-producing cells in the lantern to briefly shut down. This allows oxygen to pass through to the interior of the cells and react with the chemicals luceriferin and luciferase to generate a flash. When the nitric oxide is turned off, the oxygen "gatekeepers" started up again and the light disappears. The whole thing happens in milliseconds.

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