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Glowing Wounds

Glowing Wounds The saprobe Panellus Stipticus displaying bioluminescence, Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 via Wikipedia

Many legends of our nation's history are just that, legends, with no basis in established fact. But at least one Civil War legend may have just been upgraded in authenticity, thanks to an idea from a high-school student. This Science Update reveals how tales that may sound like supernatural fiction could actually be science fact.


Transcript

A healing light on the battlefield. I'm Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Seventeen year old Bill Martin was visiting Shiloh, a Civil War battlefield, and heard tales of soldiers whose wounds glowed with an eerie light. Bill's mom happens to be Phyllis Martin, a microbiologist at the USDA Agricultural Research Service in Beltsville, Maryland. She studies a soil bacterium called P. Luminescens that glows pale blue.

Martin:
So you know, he comes home and, 'Mom, you're working with a glowing bacteria. Could that have caused the glowing wounds?' And so, being a scientist, of course I said, "Well, you can do an experiment to find out."

So Bill and his friend, John Curtis, did historical research and found that the bacterium could indeed have lived in the conditions at Shiloh. But their lab experiments showed the bacterium doesn't live at body temperature.

Martin:

OK, well, this is a problem. But then they found that soldiers that would have been wounded would have had hypothermia, and therefore, the body temperature would be lower. And sure enough that was the key to the whole thing.

The bacterium appears to make an antibiotic that would have helped the soldiers' wounds to heal. Martin says the students are now working on identifying the compound.

For the American Association for the Advancement of Science, I'm Bob Hirshon.


Making Sense of the Research

Many legends of our nation's history are just that,legends, with no basis in established fact. But at least one Civil War legend may have just been upgraded in authenticity, thanks to an idea from a high-school student. This Science Update reveals how tales that may sound like supernatural fiction could actually be science fact.

Bill Martin and his family had heard some folklore about Civil War soldiers with glow-in-the-dark wounds who appeared to have better survival rates than soldiers with nonglowing wounds. Bill wondered if the subject of his mother's research—Photorhabdus luminescens, a bacteria that glows—could have caused the glowing wounds. He and his friend, Jonathan Curtis, performed research and experiments to find out if Photorhabdus luminescens was present at Shiloh, a particular battlefield where the glowing wounds were reported.

Bill and Jonathan not only discovered that the Photorhabdus luminescens bacteria was probably present at the Battle of Shiloh, but also found that it could indeed have grown on the bodies of the wounded soldiers, since their body temperatures were lowered by hypothermia (Photorhabdus luminescens does not grow at normal human body temperature).

With its focus on the P. Luminescens bacteria, this Science Update could lead to lessons and activities on bacteria and other microorganisms. In addition, the boys' research is an excellent example of students using the scientific method to answer a question or solve a problem. This Science Update, therefore, could be used as a starting-off point to show other students how scientists conduct research. This could be particularly useful at the middle-school and high-school levels, where students should become more sophisticated in conducting their investigations and where their experiments may last for weeks or more.

Now try and answer these questions:

  1. What incident sparked Bill Martin's curiosity about the glowing bacteria? What did the two students discover through their research?
  2. What type of soil bacterium does Phyllis Martin study?
  3. What is special about that bacterium?
  4. What did Bill and his friend, Jonathan Curtis, do to find out if a bacteria could cause glowing wounds?
  5. During their research, Bill and Jonathan came across a problem. What was that problem and how did they resolve it?
  6. What is the significance of the glowing bacteria?

For Educators

There are a number of websites that provide good information about microbes, as well as some fascinating images of them. Microbe Zoo is a colorful and informative tour of microbial ecology put into common concepts. The most extensive section of the site is Dirtland, with its discussion of microbes associated with agriculture, human habitation, industry, and soil.

MicrobeWorld is a fantastic site for all individuals interested in microbiology and/or biological sciences in general. It is presented by the American Society for Microbiology.

A couple of good sites that provide information about scientists and their work, or simply highlight the role of basic research in solving or answering a scientific question, are: Snapshots of Science and Medicine and Beyond Discovery.


Related Resources

Germs and the Body
3-5 | Hands-On
Microbes 1: What's Bugging You?
6-8 |
Microbes 2: Louis Pasteur—a Microbe Discoverer
6-8 |
Sanitation and Human Health
6-8 |

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