Lovey-dovey fire­fly chem­istry

Popular Science - - CONTENTS -

STEP 1: For two weeks in early sum­mer, it’s mat­ing sea­son. Fe­males perch on bushes and grass as night falls, await­ing the flashy all-male revue. STEP 2: As the male flies, oxy­gen en­ters its bum through tubes in its ab­domen called tra­cheae (A). These run from the ex­oskele­ton sur­face to light-pro­duc­ing cells known as pho­to­cytes. STEP 3: In­side the pho­to­cytes, the lu­ciferase en­zyme merges with the light-pro­duc­ing lu­ciferin mol­e­cule (B), cat­alyzed by oxy­gen and en­ergy-stor­ing ATP. The re­sult: oxy­lu­ciferin, a com­pound with ex­cess en­ergy in its atoms that is re­leased as light. It’s vis­i­ble through trans­par­ent seg­ments of the bug’s lower ab­domen. STEP 4: The butt of a male fire­fly un­der­goes this process ev­ery 5.5 sec­onds. When a guy catches her eye, the fe­male flirts back by flash­ing her sig­nal about 2 sec­onds af­ter the male (by means of the same chem­i­cal mashup)—a semaphoric wink and blush. STEP 5: The male fol­lows his lady’s light to find her and mate. A few days later, the fe­male lays fer­til­ized eggs in the ground, which hatch two to four weeks later—all thanks to a magical light show.

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