Getting the Glow

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Alex Mack received her super powers through a chemical spill.The 1990s are back – at least, on television. TeenNick announced earlier this year that it would begin airing a retro block of 90s Nickelodeon shows such as All That, Clarissa Explains It All, Rugrats, and Pete & Pete. If you do not see your favorite 90s program on the lineup, do not despair – TeenNick hopes to rearrange the block to showcase other 90s series. That means if you were a fan of the science-fiction series The Secret World of Alex Mack, there is hope!

For those not familiar, the show followed Alex Mack, a teenage girl accidentally doused with a secret chemical during an accident. The chemicals rearrange her body chemistry, giving her all sorts of powers like the ability to conduct electricity, morph in a puddle and, oddly enough, glow. Under periods of anxiety, Mack’s face and body would glow yellow, almost like a firefly. That kind of glow naturally occurs in animals, plants, and fungi. It is called bioluminescence and in recent years it has been applied to animals that are not natural “glow-ers.”

Fido and Fluffy Glow in the Dark

Bioluminescence in animals and other organisms is the by-product of a chemical reaction between two substances, a luciferin (a light-producing substance) and a luciferase (a catalyst for the reaction). The luciferin and luciferase are different in different animals – they are generic terms – but the end result is the same: a glow. So, perhaps the chemical spill in The Secret World of Alex Mack prompted her body to start producing luciferins and luciferases.

Meet Mr. Green Genes, the glowing cat.This sort of gene modification is already taking place with cats and dogs – though the process starts before the animal is even born. Researchers in Korea and the United States produced a glowing dog named Tegan and a glowing cat named Mr. Green Genes, respectively. The teams inserted a DNA fragment that controls green fluorescence into the animal’s cells, which was then mixed with DNA from the animal’s oocyte (an immature female reproductive cell). The resulting DNA became an embryo through a process known as somatic cell nuclear transfer and the embryo was transferred to a surrogate. Besides glowing under UV light, the cat and dog are normal pets – the wonders of science! The hope for this type of genetic modification is the ability to trace genetic disorders, like Alzheimer’s, to better understand how the diseases develop.

Humans Glow All the Time

Gene modification is not the reason Alex Mack glows though. Her glow is the result of the chemical spill, so her genes were left untouched previous to the accident. As it turns out though, humans glow all the time. Actually, all living organisms produce a small (really small!) amount of light. The light is not visible to the naked eye but in 2009, researchers at the Tohoku Institute of Technology in Sendai, Japan, were able to capture “human glow” images

Using a highly sensitive cryogenic charge-coupled device camera, the researchers took photographs of volunteers in a dark room with no light at various times of day. Turns out, humans emit the most light in late afternoon and the least amount of light at night. The brightest areas of the body are the cheeks, forehead, and neck. Perhaps the chemical accident in The Secret World of Alex Mack upped the amount of light Mack emits? Her face and neck glow when she is experiencing anxiety, so it is a possible explanation, plus the chemical spill obviously altered her body chemistry – the girl can turn into a puddle. Either way, The Secret World of Alex Mack is not a show that needs a science explanation, though it is fun to apply one! Plus, with glow-in-the-dark dogs and cats, maybe a real-life version of Mack is not too far in the future.

The statements and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the event participants and do not necessarily reflect the views of any organization or agency that provided support for this event or of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.