|MadSci Network: General Biology|
Thank you Amber for the question, Fireflies or lightning bugs make light within their bodies. This process is called bioluminescence and is shared by many other organisms, mostly sea-living or marine organisms. To do this, the fireflies contain specialized cells in their abdomen that make light. The cells contain a chemical called luciferin and make an enzyme called luciferase. To make light, the luciferin combines with oxygen to form an inactive molecule called oxyluciferin. Luciferin, a heat resistant substrate, is the source of light; luciferase, an enzyme, is the trigger; and oxygen is the fuel. A body chemical, ATP (adenosine triphosphate), converts to energy and causes the luciferin-luciferase mixture to light up. The wavelength of light given off is between 510 and 670 nanometers, which lies in the visible range of what our eyes can detect, bascially a pale yellow to reddish green color. The cells that make the light also have uric acid crystals in them that help to reflect the light away from the abdomen. The amount of light is a little tricky as it depends on the firefly. So let's use a good example of one to arrive at an answer. The Pyralis firefly (also known as the lightning bug) is a common firefly in North America. This partly nocturnal, luminescent beetle is the most common firefly in the USA. The brightness of a single firefly is 1/40 of a candle. Males flash about every five seconds; females flash about every two seconds. Lets' do some definitions now…… We're in the United States, so we are going to talk about units of measurement that concern distance in feet and inches. We're going to talk about "foot-candles". As asimple example, get a birthday cake candle, a ruler, and stick the candle on one end of the ruler. Light the candle and turn out the lights. One foot-candle of light is the amount of light that birthday cake candle generates one foot away. So, to go further, say you have a lamp. You are told it produces 100 foot candles of light. That means at one foot from the lamp, you will receive 100 foot candles of light. But here's where it gets tricky. The further away you move the light from what you want to illuminate, the less bright the light seems. If you measure it at the light, it's just as bright. But when you measure at the object you want illuminated, like the book you want to read, there is less light. Now, lets look at another unit of measure called a "lumen". It measures light much the same way. Remember, a foot-candle is how bright the light is one foot away from the source. A lumen is a way of measuring how much light gets to what you want to light up. A lumen is equal to one foot-candle falling on one square foot of area. So, to continue the candle example, we will now take the candle and ruler and place a book at the opposite end for the ruler from the candle. If that book happens to be one foot by one foot, it's one square foot. Now, all the light falling on that book, one foot away from your candle equals both…….1 foot candle and 1 lumen. Now, I am assuming that, though it might be tough, you could read that book with the candle a foot away. Thus, if we take that measurement of 1/40 of a candle of light being put out by a common firefly, then it would take 40 of them to produce enough light to read the book at any one time. I hope this answered your question. Tye
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