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The Journal of Experimental Biology


Geisel School of Medicine


Although many aspects of firefly bioluminescence are understood, the mechanism by which adult fireflies produce light as discrete rapid flashes is not. Here we examine the most postulated theory, that flashing is controlled by gating oxygen access to the light-emitting cells (photocytes). According to this theory, the dark state represents repression of bioluminescence by limiting oxygen, which is required for bioluminescence; relief from this repression by transiently allowing oxygen access to the photocytes allows the flash. We show that normobaric hyperoxia releases the repression of light emission in the dark state of both spontaneously flashing and non-flashing fireflies, causing continual glowing, and we measure the kinetics of this process. Secondly, we determine the length of the barriers to oxygen diffusion to the photocytes in the aqueous and gas phases. Thirdly, we provide constraints upon the distance between any gas-phase gating structure(s) and the photocytes. We conclude from these data that the flash of the adult firefly is controlled by gating of oxygen to the photocytes, and demonstrate that this control mechanism is likely to act by modulating the levels of fluid in the tracheoles supplying photocytes, providing a variable barrier to oxygen diffusion.