Saving Charismatic Minifauna: How Precision Fermentation Spared Tens of Millions of Fireflies

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For decades, children sent tens of millions of fireflies to Sigma Chemical Co. in exchange for swag and cash.

By Paul Shapiro

Supply chains for any product can be messy, but it’s hard to imagine one messier than how diabetics before the ’90s got their insulin. Pharma giant Eli Lilly alone used to purchase 53 million pig and cattle pancreases each year just to extract the insulin that was sold to the diabetic market.

As I wrote for Food Dive, that gruesome practice ended when a then-startup called Genentech pioneered a method of genetically engineering bacteria that produce actual human insulin. Almost overnight, diabetics had a much safer and cleaner way to keep their bodies humming. Such precision fermentation of specialty microbes is also the reason milk can now curdle to make cheese without the need for a calf’s intestinal lining, the primary source of rennet for centuries.

This technology has inspired a host of start-ups today to create their own designer microbes to make all kinds of real animal products without a single animal. Clara Foods is making egg whites, Geltor is making collagen, Perfect Day is making whey protein, and Bond Pet Foods is making chicken protein, all simply by harnessing microorganisms that could one day do for farm animals what cars did for horses and kerosene did for whales: render their exploitation obsolete.

An Enlightening Tweet

So it was with great curiosity that I read one of Alex Lorestani’s recent tweets which ultimately sent me down a rabbit hole of interesting animal-saving biotech history.

The Geltor CEO wrote that for his company’s five-year anniversary, he treated himself to a souvenir collection jar from the days of chemical company Sigma’s (now Sigma-Aldrich) firefly needs.

Just why would a chemical company need fireflies?

It turns out that the ability to light your body up (aka bioluminescence) is so useful that on land alone it’s independently evolved at least 30 separate times. It’s also common in sea-dwelling animals. But there’s no species better known for bioluminescence than fireflies, perhaps the world’s most beloved insect. (For the record, they’re beetles, not flies.)

Fireflies contain an enzyme called luciferase that when combined with an organic compound known as ATP creates the light that humans consider so mystical in nighttime meadows. For the fireflies, though, the light is far more practical than mystical, as the bioluminescence drives their courting ritual. Males in the air light up to attract females observing from the ground. If impressed, the female signals an invitation to the floating male to come join her on that special blade of grass.

Hello, Sigma Firefly Scientists Club, and Goodbye 100 Million Fireflies

Every living organism on earth — from you to birds to fish to ants to microbes — has ATP in it. And if luciferase touches ATP, it will light up like, well, a firefly. This led scientists to realize that you could easily and quickly detect foodborne pathogens like E. Coli if you just had some luciferase on hand. You could also rapidly ensure lab sterility by just spraying some luciferase on the counter to see if anything brightens. NASA has even used luciferase for life detection purposes (see p. 13 here), including on the Martian Viking mission in the 1970s. Numerous other uses for luciferase have been discovered, as reported by the New York Times in 1975.

Just one problem: the primary way to get luciferase was from fireflies. And it took a lot of fireflies.

As Sara Lewis writes in her enlightening (pun intended) book Silent Sparks: The Wondrous World of Fireflies, scientists in Baltimore began “harvesting” fireflies from the night air for luciferase collection in 1947. Of course, they could never capture enough of the animals on their own, and thus commenced a war on the firefly that led to the demise of astronomical numbers of these creatures.

Commercial collection began when scientists started offering children money for fireflies. At first, in the late 1940s, tens of thousands of the beetles were captured annually. But starting in the 1960s, Sigma knew just how valuable luciferase actually was, and that it could make a killing, literally, with the right incentives for kids.

Thus was born the Sigma Firefly Scientists Club. In exchange for fireflies, children were offered money (up to a penny per firefly) along with buttons, nets, and a variety of other prizes. As journalist Cara Giaimo writes, entrepreneurial kids made what to them were fortunes to engage in a pastime they already enjoyed. It was the ultimate summer job.

Sigma received about three million fireflies each year from the 1960s through the early 1990s. Estimates of the slaughter put the total death toll from the Sigma Firefly Scientists Club at roughly 100 million.

Biotech: The Firefly’s Savior

So why is the jar that Alex Lorestani ordered a souvenir artifact of a bygone era and not a current biotech tool?

The firefly wasn’t saved by ecologists concerned about the insects or biodiversity. No charity crusaded to save the charismatic minifauna. Instead, biotech innovation spared the firefly.

Sara Lewis sums up the firefly’s deliverance:

“Using recombinant DNA techniques, the luciferase gene could be inserted into harmless bacteria whose protein-assembling machinery then cranked out large quantities of luciferase. This synthetic luciferase has been available since 1985, and it’s cheaper to produce and more reliable than what’s extracted from live fireflies. As a result, there’s no longer any reason to harvest fireflies from wild populations.”

It’s truly as simple as that. Sigma closed down its club in the early 1990s since it no longer needed to cut the lanterns off fireflies’ bodies to get luciferase. (Yes, “lantern” is the technical term for the part of the insect that lights up.) Instead, via precision fermentation, it could make its own luciferase. And just like that, the bounty on the firefly’s head was lifted and they could mate, and do everything else, in peace again.

Lessons for Today

Humans have a tendency to delude ourselves into thinking resources are inexhaustible. That’s what we thought about the passenger pigeon — who used to literally darken our skies when millions flew above us — until we slaughtered them into extinction to feed us. That’s how we treated the firefly for decades, too. Sadly, no technology saved the passenger pigeon in the way that synthetic luciferase did the firefly. Today, the firefly’s greatest enemy is still humans, though not from capture, but simply from us paving away their habitat and our spraying of insecticides.

But just like we’ve treated animals in the past as inexhaustible resources, that’s exactly what we’re doing today with animals like chickens, turkeys, pigs, and other animals we farm. It takes enormous resources to produce all these animals, and it would take far less land, water, and other resources if we’d simply eat fewer animals.

The problem is that meat consumption continues to rise, not fall. As promising as plant-based meat is, it’s still a tiny fraction (less than one percent) of all meat sales. But what if we could use precision fermentation and other technology to mimic animal products without the need to raise and slaughter animals? That’s exactly what the start-ups named at the beginning of this story are doing.

Despite increasing awareness of how raising billions of animals drives climate change, amplifies pandemic risk, increases animal cruelty, and more, humans largely haven’t shown a willingness to switch away from animal protein. In fact, we’re eating more meat than ever before. But increasingly, through the power of food technology, we’re able to create products that look and taste like meat from animals, but that don’t require industrial farms and slaughterhouses.

This is, after all, how humans ate meat on Star Trek. For example, as Commander Riker once explained to an alien in the future, “We no longer enslave animals for food purposes. You’ve seen something as fresh and tasty as meat, but it’s been inorganically materialized out of patterns used by our transporters.”

Such futuristic biotech once saved the fireflies. Maybe one day soon it’ll do the same for farm animals, too.

Paul Shapiro is the author of the national bestseller Clean Meat: How Growing Meat Without Animals Will Revolutionize Dinner and the World, the CEO of The Better Meat Co., a four-time TEDx speaker, and the host of the Business for Good Podcast.

Written by

Husband of Toni Okamoto. Author of nat’l bestseller Clean Meat. CEO of The Better Meat Co. Host of Business for Good Podcast. 4x TEDx speaker. Paul-Shapiro.com

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