By: Corey Buhay
Civil war soldiers lay in agony in the field hospitals, wounds from battle still fresh. In the nighttime it was easier to see that there was more than just blood shining in those raw gashes. The wounds were glowing. The soldiers who found themselves blessed with that luminescent gleam would rest easy; they knew they were more likely to survive. “Angel’s Glow,” they called it…
Or that’s how the legend goes.
There’s a luminescent bacteria that lives inside the bodies of tiny roundworms – nematodes. It leaves the worms only to enter the bodies of insects, carcasses, or, according to folklore, the wounds of soldiers. The interesting thing about these bacteria is that they’re lethal to their insect victims but not to the nematodes they live in.
In fact, the two have a symbiotic relationship. For one thing, the bacteria produce a sort of antibiotic to reduce the influence of competitor bacteria. This lends some credence to the legend of the “Angel’s Glow” phenomenon giving soldiers a better chance of survival. The bacteria also help metabolize insects and other prey that their nematode hosts bring them to. One way they do this is by releasing a toxin known as makes caterpillars floppy, or mcf. Yep, that’s it. That’s the real, scientific community-recognized, technical term. Makes caterpillars floppy.
And it does. The toxin works to reduce the turgor, or stiffness, of the insect’s body. The bacteria convert the bodies of prey into food that both the worm and the bacteria can consume.
Scientists like Dr. Floyd L. Inman and Dr. Leonard D. Holmes of UNC Pembroke have been looking into the possibility of using these glowing, insect-digesting, antibiotic-producing little bacteria as a sustainable pesticide alternative. They’re safe to animals and humans, and any genetic mutations that might render them otherwise is likely to kill them; without a very specific chemical relationship between the nematodes and the bacteria, both would die.
Because they crawl into the bodies of caterpillars and other herbivorous pests, the nematode-bacteria combo could be a potential weapon against rapidly evolving, pesticide-resistant bugs. Inman and Holmes, along with Dr, Sunita Singh from the Central Institute of Agricultural Engineering, Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh India, analyzed the way in which these worms can be mass-produced for commercial agriculture. This includes very specific parameters like food source, temperature, and even pH of the environment to maximize growth. With their finetuned methods, Inman, Singh, and Holmes are able to produce 50,000 of the nematodes (complete with bacteria!) in just 1 mL of formula.
That’s a lot of worms. And a lot of toxic, glowing, insect-digesting bacteria.
If only the Civil War vets had that kind of technology.