The prospect of doing with less fossil fuel makes us writhe, like earthworms on hot asphalt. We really need some great ideas. Here's one I read online: trees that shade streets during the day and turn into street lamps at night. That's one of the improbable genetic engineering notions for the future of bioluminescence.
The experts in this field are insects. Alien, six-legged beasts whose blood isn't red; whose jaws move sideways. Some insects make honey, some make music, and some, when they want to find a girlfriend, light up their bellies.
If you look into the natural history of fireflies, you learn that the evening meadow is a club scene, in which sex-minded males fly around, turning on and off, hoping for a female to shine back. For every lady lightning bug perched on shrubs or in the grass, there are fifty airborne males in circulation.
Before it gets to try its luck at dating, each firefly has spent two years as a luminescent larvae. Nick-named glowworms, they creep among places moist with decaying vegetation, stalking prey, including slugs, worms, and other insects. Their glows warn predators that they make a nasty, toxic meal. After metamorphosis, the few weeks of an adult firefly's life center around reproduction.
Males of the most common group of fireflies fly a few feet off the ground. Each species has its particular flashing pattern. When a female of the same species perceives that signal, she flashes a response, which brings the male to her side, to fertilize her eggs, laying the groundwork for a repetition of this quiet light show two summers later.
One kind of lady lighting bug takes unprincipled advantage. A female of the large Photuris genus counterfeits the flashes of males of other species. If she succeeds in luring one, she captures her unlucky suitor, and devours him.
That might strike you as too much information. My sister-in-law calls it TMI; she thinks she's better off, sometimes, knowing less than people want to tell her. But, hey, we're in the information age. No doubt some of you readers could calculate the bandwidth of a field of flashing fireflies.
Bioluminescence—a pleasing word—is an efficient means of light production; a high proportion of its energy is released as light instead of heat. Future genetically-engineered applications, or fantasies, include the afore-mentioned living street lamps, Christmas trees that that grow built-in lights, plants that glow when they need watering, and (oh brother) novelty pets. Bioluminescent materials are presently in use as markers for medical research.
If plants could glow when they need watering, couldn't spouses have ear lobes that shine when they would be willing to rub your back?
The Museum of Science has a program in which anyone can contribute to scientific understanding of fireflies. If you'd like to learn more, check out www.mos.org/fireflywatch.