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Students May 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 2001 Intel 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 effect.

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 don’t 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 alternative.

ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s chief scientific research agency.

Scientific contact: Phyllis Martin, ARS Insect Biocontrol Laboratory, phone (301) 504-6331, fax (301) 504-5689,

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