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Fireflies aid hunt for ET

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The smart choice: opportunity from uncertainty

Fireflies could in future help scientists in the search for extraterrestrial life.

The insects contain a chemical called luciferase and it's this that makes the bugs glow.

Luciferase is already used in various forms of bioanalysis - in particular for analysing DNA and as a positive indicator for the presence of bacteria. It reacts with all living material to create light, and this makes it a good candidate for use in the search for biological life on Mars. There's just one small problem.

Luciferase is temperature dependent and just doesn't work when the heat is on. Anything sent to Mars must be able to withstand some temperature variation to be viable, and this is where a team of Swedish boffins comes in.

They've managed to get the stuff to glow at much higher temperatures than normal - up to 37 degrees centigrade - using what doctoral student at the Stockholm's Royal Institute of Technology, Jonas Eriksson, calls a thermodynamic "magic trick".

Although this breakthrough paves the way for equipping future rovers like Spirit and Opportunity with bio-detecting sensors, the most immediate benefit is more accurate analysis of DNA using pyrosequencing. At lower temperatures, reactions can occur that render test results difficult to interpret, but with the thermodynamic trick Eriksson has discovered, this is no longer a problem.

So, next stop for the humble firefly - the Red Planet? ®

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