Scientists discover how NZ glowworms shine

Scientists have discovered just what it is that makes the tails of New Zealand glow worms light up and now hope to use the knowledge to aid medical research.

The small glow worm larvae that later bloom into a flying insect produce their light using a chemical reaction that is different to all other glowing creatures such as fireflies, the University of Otago study published on Tuesday says.

"What we have discovered is that the chemical, called a luciferin, which makes light in New Zealand glow worms is unique," joint author Miriam Sharpe said.

But while the glow worm's chemical reaction might be unique, all living creatures that generate light use some form of chemical reaction, which takes place in enzymes called luciferases.

Some of these reactions have been replicated in laboratories around the world and used in biotechnology research and treatment.

Study co-author Kurt Krause hopes the New Zealand glow worm's chemical reaction can be similarly used to potentially monitor cancer cells or help identify infectious diseases.

"The chemistry behind some bioluminescent species, such as fireflies, is already used in scientific experiments world-wide," he said.

"We believe the novel chemistry of the glow worms means their light could be used in similar kinds of experiments."

The research team are now seeking funding to allow them to attempt to synthesise the glow worm reaction in a laboratory.