Have Answer for Faster-Healing Civil War Wounds that Glowed
By Sharon Durham
May 29, 2001
Bacteria that can make insects sick may
have been responsible for the exceptional healing of Civil War soldiers
wounds that glowed in the dark. This finding comes from an award-winning
research project by two high school students who worked with an
Agricultural Research Service scientist.
The two students, Bill Martin and Jonathan Curtis, seniors at Bowie High
School in Bowie, Md., were mentored by researchers at the
ARS Plant Science Institute in
Beltsville, Md. The students placed first in team competition at the
International Science and Engineering Science Fair held in San Jose,
Calif., earlier this month.
ARS microbiologist Phyllis Martin and her son Bill, a Civil War buff, had
heard the folklore of Civil War soldiers with glow-in-the-dark wounds who
appeared to have better survival rates than soldiers with nonglowing wounds.
She had previously studied the bacterium, Photorhabdus luminescens, as a
potential biocontrol agent and knew that this insect pathogen created a glowing
In their project Civil War Wounds that Glowed, the students
described how the presence of this luminescent bacterium might have aided
healing. They found that three Photorhabdus strains actually produced
antibiotics that inhibited the growth of other bacteria that would have caused
infections in open wounds.
Using P. luminescens, which is found in nematodes, Phyllis Martin is
seeking to control Colorado potato beetles, a significant pest of agricultural
crops. The Heterorhabdus genus of nematodes harbor the glowing bacteria
that seem to control the beetle. Currently, growers who dont want to
combat certain crop pests with pesticides can opt to use Bacillus
thuringiensis, a soilborne organism that controls certain pest insects
during their larval stage. But P. luminescens may be a future
ARS is the U.S. Department of
Agricultures chief scientific research agency.
Scientific contact: Phyllis Martin,
ARS Insect Biocontrol
Laboratory, phone (301) 504-6331, fax (301) 504-5689,