By Noah Steinfeld

In the early 1950s at Johns Hopkins University, William E. McElroy, a young professor, wanted to figure out what makes fireflies glow. He would pay a quarter to children in the Baltimore area for every 100 fireflies they brought him. McElroy was regarded as a curiosity in the community: the stereotype of an eccentric scientist. But what these people didn’t know was that as a result of this research, McElroy would one day create a tool that would revolutionize the way scientists do biological research.


Unfortunately, if he were working in science today, McElroy’s crucial research may have never gotten off the ground. Funding for basic science research—research that has the goal of expanding scientific knowledge for knowledge’s sake—has been dwindling. Instead, funding has recently been focused on applied science research, which turns scientific knowledge into useful products (studying the mechanism of a disease with the hope of finding a protein target that can be treated with a drug, for example). Unlike applied research, basic science does not have a goal beyond knowledge, so it is not immediately obvious what makes it important—both to the public and even to other scientists.

When we focus solely on applied research, we are saying that we already know which concepts and mechanisms are important. This overconfident approach leaves little room for exploration of entirely novel aspects of science. On the other hand, purely curious basic science research presumes the opposite: things we have yet to comprehend are important to understand. These currently unknown concepts may be relevant to human disease or other applications, but without basic science research they will likely remain unknown and their potential impact to humanity will not be realized.

William E. McElroy’s firefly research was conducted out of curiosity and without a clear idea of its uses, making it precisely the type of work that would most likely go unfunded today. Yet through his research, McElroy was able to isolate the five chemicals that worked together to produce light. Among them was adenosine triphosphate (ATP)—an extraordinarily important molecule that acts as the main source of energy in the cell. When we digest food, the energy from food is converted into ATP. Furthermore, McElroy discovered that when the other four bioluminescent chemicals were present, the amount of light emitted was directly related to the amount of ATP present.1 With this discovery, McElroy was able to create a simple method to measure ATP levels. This technique has been put to use in a myriad of fields. Using this test, scientists are able to do everything from measuring the number of microorganisms growing in drinking water2 to studying changes in a cancer cell’s metabolism.3

When he started studying fireflies, I can’t imagine that McElroy had the slightest idea that his work would have this important application. Nor is this an isolated example. Just last month, this article was written about the potential application of a small bacterial protein4 important to the formation of biofilms—thin layers of bacterial slime to which cells stick—in making a slower-melting ice cream. Who would have guessed that studying biofilms could lead to such a delicious outcome? Innovation can come from the strangest places and we do a disservice to ourselves if we do not continue to pursue nature’s curiosities.

Ultimately, basic and applied research are both essential for scientific progress to occur. Without the knowledge created by basic researchers, applied scientists would have nowhere to begin. Basic science paves the way for applied science. But these days, the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of applied research. I urge each of you to consider the value of the curiosity-driven paradigm. By learning more about fundamental processes in nature, we have the chance to discover something new that could improve our understanding of the world and how we live in it.

About the author

NoahNoah Steinfeld is a second-year student in the Cellular and Molecular Biology PhD program at the University of Michigan. Under the guidance of Dr. Lois Weisman, Noah is studying how, when cells divide, they make sure that organelles, cellular subunits with important specialized functions, are evenly distributed in both daughter cells. Before coming to Michigan, Noah graduated from Yale University with a degree in Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry and before that, he spent his youth in snowy Buffalo, New York. In his spare time, Noah watches TV (Superhero shows and the bachelor franchise are two favorites), plays Frisbee, and supports UMich sports teams. Follow him on Twitter and connect with him on Linkedin!

Read other posts by Noah here.

1 McElroy, W. D. The Energy Source for Bioluminescence in an Isolated System. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 33, 342-345 (1947).
2 Deininger, R. A. & Lee, J. Rapid determination of bacteria in drinking water using an ATP assay. Field Anal Chem Tech 5, 185-189, doi:DOI 10.1002/fact.1020 (2001).
3 Garewal, H. S., Ahmann, F. R., Schifman, R. B. & Celniker, A. ATP assay: ability to distinguish cytostatic from cytocidal anticancer drug effects. J Natl Cancer Inst 77, 1039-1045 (1986).
4 Hobley, L. et al. BslA is a self-assembling bacterial hydrophobin that coats the Bacillus subtilis biofilm. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 110, 13600-13605, doi:10.1073/pnas.1306390110 (2013).

3 thoughts on “How fireflies illuminated our understanding of the world

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s