|Theory made practical|
Theoretical chemistry is an unlikely realm to offer alternatives to experimentation on living organisms but work conducted by Dr Isabelle Navizet a post doctoral fellow in the department of chemistry at Wits university, suggests otherwise.
Together with colleagues from China, Sweden and France, Isabelle has been exploring light emissions in fireflies using purely theoretical tools. The work is a combination of quantum and molecular mechanics and would have most of us in a complete stew if left with only one of the equations to solve.
In addition to fireflies there are a number of creatures who emit light by themselves, termites, worms, beetles, sea worms and jelly fish to name a few all have the capacity to glow in the dark. Isabelle and her colleagues use complex mathematical formulae to explore the questions around the nature of bioluminescent emissions. It is exacting and time consuming work as they explore fundamental questions as to whether bioluminescent systems are the same as fluorescent ones. Fireflies, click beetles and rail road worms for example all share the same substrate luciferin but emit light of different wavelengths. The questions arising from these differences are what controls colour differentiation.
It probably would be easier to poke and prod little fireflies or railroad worms to work out some of the answers but the theoretical route and the pathways Isabelle and her colleagues are pioneering are ones which offer a future where even less experimentation might be necessary to answer fundamental questions about how much of nature works. The applications of this knowledge are multiple. Bioluminescence is starting to be used as a highly sensitive doping detector. Its potential for cancer cell marking, calcium marking and a host of other applications make the outcomes of the research important and valuable.
By Helen Lunn