College’s Firefly Light Research Could Help Military

Professor Bruce Branchini

At sometime in the future, firefly light could lead a military pilot to a safe landing and keep him safe from enemy detection.

Scientists at Connecticut College have found a way to modify the flickering light fireflies emit so it could be used by the military or for medical research.

The light is actually glowing genes or, in more scientific terms, bioluminescence.

Bruce Branchini and his Bioluminescence Research Group have engineered an enhanced version of that light-emitting protein and secured the first patent -- U.S. Patent No. 7,807,429 -- for the university.

Unlike other sources of light, this emits no heat, spark or flame, so it can be used for multiple purposes.

This is useful for the military because they could use bioluminescence to create a landing pad that emits no heat, avoiding detection by heat sensors.

The research, which could also be used for drug screening, in vivo imaging, biosensors for pollutants or diseases or anti-tampering devices.

Branchini was able to change the color from its natural yellow-green to an orange-red, which is easier for the eye to see. Because of this, it can be used in cancer research and light up cancer cells.

“This patent is an exciting recognition of the scientific research and discovery that takes place at Connecticut College,” Dean of the Faculty Roger Brooks said. “Professor Branchini and his Bioluminescence Research Group have made a number of important discoveries that will have broad implications in medicine, military technology and a number of other important fields.”

The National Science Foundation, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research and the Hans and Ella McCollum ’21 Vahlteich Endowment have funded.

Jennifer P. DeAngelis ’06, who coauthored a paper on the Italian firefly enzyme, is also named on the patent.

Branchini and his team are also working to manipulate light-emitting enzymes from a North American firefly to emit infrared light, which can’t be seen with the naked eye.

“This is the kind of light that makes remote controls work and the kind you can see with night vision goggles,” Branchini said.

You can read more about the research the Airforce Times Web site.

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