Sequencing the Firefly Genome — How Did the Firefly Get Its Glow?

Photo Credit: Smithsonian Mag

It is an outrage that there are not more romantic tributes to the glory of the firefly. One electronica song, a music festival, a TV series, and personal website just don’t seem to do the flying beetles justice. After all, they do mysteriously emit light from their rear ends and generously paint celestial patterns in the twilight of temperate and tropical, damp woods. The nocturnal omnivores can combine the chemicals in their abdomen with oxygen and create twinkling lights without too much heat. But, despite their best efforts, they were previously overlooked when it came to genome sequencing technologies.

Jing-Ke Weng, an assistant professor of biology at MIT, noticed this grave injustice and decided to do something about it. One of the first steps to gaining insight into bioluminescence and the biochemical mechanisms behind the lightning bugs spark is to sequence their genome. Not only would this provide a reference for entomologists, but it could also help Jing-Ke and his team better understand the molecular origins of other organisms’ light shows. I asked Jing-Ke about his Experiment campaign to tell the story of ‘Illuminating the Firefly Genome.’

Who are you?

My name is Jing-Ke Weng and I’m a member of the Whitehead Institute and also assistant professor at the Department of Biology at MIT.

Tell us about your experiment.

We put up this firefly genome project on Experiment and our goal is to sequence the whole genome of North American firefly, Photinus pyralis, which is a very beloved animal in this area. Especially in the summer, as you go out in the night you’ll see these little critters light up. It’s very romantic, it’s great for kids and events. We’re very curious about the organisms but when we start to study the mechanisms behind its bioluminescence, we were very surprised to find out nobody has done very serious resource building work or sequenced the firefly genome.

The more we dig into the system we realize it’s very necessary, not only for our own research but also just for the whole entire firefly research community. Since this is the organism that everybody knows and loves we think it’s a very good idea to raise the money to help fund it. We got in touch with Experiment and we put together a webpage and a video and so far it’s been great. We raised the money necessary to do the project.

Why did you choose this species of firefly?

The Star Species

Photinus pyralis is the most well-known firefly in North America and it’s historically very important. In terms of molecular biology it is important because of its luciferase, which is the enzyme that gives out the light, and also its luciferin, which is the chemical that serves as the substrate for the luciferase. Both of these molecules were initially isolated from this particular species so it’s historically very important for science.

Did you always see yourself as becoming a scientist or working with insects or did you consider other options when you were younger?

Well, I’m not a dedicated scientist studying insects. Our main effort in the lab is to explore biochemistry in the plant kingdom. We’ve accumulated a lot of the expertise by studying plants, how and why they’re making this very peculiar molecule to serve on their own purposes, a lot of times defending themselves, but throughout the time we started to accumulate expertise that allow us to study organisms that are non model species. We have a site project in the lab that’s trying to figure out the molecular mechanisms behind all those organisms that can light up. These are bioluminescent organisms.

The Sequencer: Photo Credit — Tim Fallon

We realize that we can use the technology and the methodology we’ve developed for studying plants in studying non-model insects, for example, fireflies. So far it’s been doing really well. For example, this project we put up on Experiment to sequence the genome is almost the first step we do. To gain the whole genome information of non-model species. This type of research only becomes possible because of the very rapid developments of the sequencing technology which are used in this particular experiment.

You have a lot of collaborators from various universities. How did you find each other?

Firefly research has come a long way. Historically, the structure of this molecule, luciferin, was isolated during the 1960s. Since then, there has been a long history of firefly research on many different aspects of biology. For example, there are people interested in firefly molecular biology. Some people are interested in the firefly chemistry, just like us, or biochemistry. Or there are ecologists who care about distribution of different firefly populations across the world. When we started this project we were not entomologists, we were biochemists. When we were trying to find a place to collect we got to talk to some experts in the field, we first got connected with Sara Lewis, who is a professor at Tufts University. She’s a well-established figure in the firefly community and she actually had a TED talk on fireflies.

Collecting Fireflies! Photo Credit — Tim Fallon

We emailed her and we explained what we wanted to do. She pointed out a place, pretty close to where Cambridge is, to collect fireflies. We went out together and she showed us the specific techniques you would need to collect fireflies and where and when you should do this. We learned so much from collaborating with her. She also pointed out to us some other labs who are also working on many different aspects of firefly biology. We really thought it was a good idea to basically involve the whole community. That’s how we pulled together all the people you see on Experiment’s webpage. We decided to work together on this genome project.

Why did you decide to crowdfund?

To support a research project, a very typical way or canonical way is to have a idea and then you write a research proposal, and you submit that research proposal to a potential funding agency. This type of research typically falls into either NIH or NSF. That’s a very slow process so from a idea to the point you can do the research may take a year or more. In this particular case, fireflies do not have very obvious translational impact. We can’t directly come up with a medicine out of studying the firefly genome.

You can also go to NSF, but they also, in recent years, try to fund project that can lead to economical consequence, or good things may come out of this. The fireflies are also a little bit far fetched, so we could go down this route, but we really wanted to move our project forward. Since fireflies is such a beloved organism we think maybe we should just go reach out to the public and if everybody chip in, $5, $10 we can get the fund maybe within a month or so. We did that and it really worked out.

We also really enjoyed the process of doing public outreach. We talked to so many people, we do it in so many different channels, sending out emails. We do a lot of social media. The process itself is also for promoting basic science. I think, financially, it’s a great outcome, and in terms of public science outreach we also achieved quite good results.

A lot of researchers I’ve talked with say that outreach is the hardest part of running a campaign. Would you agree with that?

Getting the word out is definitely the challenge for crowdfunding. Actually, before the project, myself and also people in my lab, have done a lot of scientific outreach so this is not a new thing for us. So, we came prepared. It’s all about how you explain your science in layman language where everybody can understand. We had a lot of practice before. These skills come handy when we did the crowdfunding. Firefly is something easy to do. Everybody understands it and they’ve seen them. I think it actually turned out to be relatively easy task for us.

What advice would you give to people who are just starting to pursue biological research?

Science is massively interesting. There is so much we have learned from all the efforts of all the scientists who worked before us, but still there is way more to be discovered. As a young person you just stick to your curiosity. Find something that’s important and that can interest you and just work hard towards it. I guarantee you’ll find something so interesting that nobody has uncovered before.

Is there anything else that you’d like to include?

I would say crowdfunding is a great idea to fund science. I think people should explore this opportunity seriously. Especially in this current funding climate many scientists are struggling because the federal funding hasn’t increased, basically stayed the same for the past many years. Scientists should really rethink about how they can fund their interesting projects. One very important skill is to reach out to the general public. You have to convince them why your research is relevant. I think when more and more people, both scientists and other citizens, start to think about it, I think we will have a emerging climate as an alternative way of funding interesting science.

Jing-Ke and his team raised $10,008 from 72 backers during their Experiment campaign in June of this year. Since then, the team has managed to decipher the mitochondrial genome of Photinus pyralis. You can read more about their field work and discoveries here!