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Bioluminescence and 16th-century Caravaggism

The Glowing Intersection between Art and Science


Yunqiu (Daniel) Wang
Department of Biology
University of Miami


This case study looks at the probable connection between bioluminescence and Caravaggio's painting style in the 16th century in order to explore the mechanism of bioluminescence and its role in animal evolution and modern medicine. Recent studies have uncovered the precise biochemical mechanism of bioluminescence and have made a number of breakthroughs in understanding the chain of evolutionary events that led to animal species acquiring bioluminescence as a communication tool for reproduction and survival. The case includes several videos created by the author to prepare students in advance for the case study in class. Originally developed for a sophomore level undergraduate biology course, the case could also be used in biochemistry, physiology, or animal behavior courses. Before attempting the case, students should have a basic background in  reduction/oxidation reactions in inorganic chemistry, stereoisomerism in organic chemistry, enzymes and their role in chemical reactions, cell structure and organelles, cell communication, cellular respiration, and animal behavior and evolution in general biology.

  • Describe the biosynthetic pathway of firefly luciferin, and understand the concept and value of isomerism in a biological process.
  • Describe the biochemical mechanism of a firefly bioluminescent reaction.
  • Explain the role of bioluminescence as an evolutionary inevitability in the survival and development of firefly species.
  • Practice scientific reasoning and research by designing a line of inquiry or an experiment that could support or falsify the claim made by Dr. Roberta Lupucci that Caravaggio indeed used the bioluminescent powder from crushed fireflies in his chiaroscuro style of painting 400 years ago.
Keywords: Bioluminescence; luciferin; luciferase; Caravaggism; firefly communication; natural selection; Caravaggio; glow; lucibufagins; Lampyridae; Photuris; femmes fatales
Topical Area: N/A
Educational Level: Undergraduate lower division, Undergraduate upper division
Formats: PDF, PowerPoint
Type/Method: Clicker, Discussion, Flipped
Language: English
Subject Headings: Biology (General)   Chemistry (General)   Evolutionary Biology  
Date Posted: 9/15/2017
Date Modified: N/A
Copyright: Copyright held by the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science, University at Buffalo, State University of New York. Please see our usage guidelines, which outline our policy concerning permissible reproduction of this work.

Teaching Notes

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Answer Key

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Supplemental Materials

Supplemental materials for this case include: (1) an optional PowerPoint presentation that contains a set of clicker questions that can be used to structure classroom discussion and (2) a podcast produced by Science Friday that instructors may wish to use with the case.

  So Flashy: The Chemistry Behind a Firefly's Glow “Science
Floating blinks of yellow, green, and orange light are typically sure signs of bioluminescent beetles, or as you likely know them, fireflies. Researchers recently nailed down the exact chemical reaction that gives fireflies their glow--information that had eluded them for decades. In this Science Friday podcast, Sarah Sander, a postdoctoral associate who studies the evolution of light color in these often luminous insects, explains how this new finding affects her work. She also elaborates on why fireflies benefit from flashing in the first place, be it to attract mates or prey. Created by Science Friday. Running time: 8:18 min. Date: July 31, 2015.


The following video(s) are recommended for use in association with this case study.

  Bioluminescence and Caravaggism
This video demonstrates Michelangelo Caravaggio’s Chiaroscuro style of painting, and his use of fluorescent firefly powder along with the camera obscura technique to produce his photography-like paintings. Running time: 5:06 min. Created by Y. Wang for the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science, 2016.

  Fireflies and Firefly Bioluminescence
This video provides basic facts about fireflies, a type of nocturnal beetle belonging to the family Lampyridae. The video also provides information on the biochemical process and mechanisms of firefly bioluminescence. Running time: 4:11 min. Created by Y. Wang for the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science, 2016.

  The Biological Function, Control and Application of Bioluminescence
This video presents key concepts and biochemical pathways of bioluminescence, and the evolutionary value of bioluminescence in animal communication and defense. Running time: 9:01 min. Created by Y. Wang for the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science, 2016.

  Supplemental Video: In a Flash: Firefly Communication “Science
Fireflies communicate with a "language of light" that scientists still don't completely understand. In this video, James Lloyd and Marc Branham of the University of Florida, Gainesville, discuss unique flash patterns and times for some of the 2,000 types of fireflies that light up the summer nights. Created by Science Friday. Produced by Emily V. Driscoll. Running Time: 4:32 min. Date: July 3, 2014.

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