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In the previous two columns I have shared stories about blue fireflies, fascinating glowing creatures in the Caribbean Sea and alluded to today’s story about a curious glowing phenomenon that occurred during the Civil War.

Before I get to the Civil War story, I want to share one more opportunity for readers to witness an unusual nighttime lightshow provided by nature.

Recall that you can enter a lottery to be included in a nighttime hike into the Smoky Mountains in late spring to see the amazing blue fireflies, habituating very remote locations that you are not likely to discover on your own.

Easier to find and located closer to home is an opportunity to witness the beautiful glow worms of Dismal’s Canyon. This National Natural Landmark in located in northwest Alabama, an easy drive from Middle Tennessee. The site is home to some beautiful day time hikes, but the attraction that makes this location unique is the presence of a visually fascinating night time show of lights emitting from the glow worms. 

The glowing worms are actually insect larvae that emit a bioluminescent energy that glows in the darkness. Guided tours are available on the weekend nights during spring and summer months.

The occurrences of nature’s creatures exhibiting glowing tendencies are quite varied throughout the world. The phenomenon is a curiosity for nature lovers and is often a matter of life, death and reproduction for the species that emit the glow, but rarely plays a significant role in lives of humans.

In one notable case however for some soldiers of the Civil War, the bioluminescence of a particular microbe may have meant the difference between survival and death

The Civil War lasted four long years, from 1861 to 1865.  The deadly battles occurred during the spring, summer, fall and winter. Medical care for the wounded was short in supply and very rudimentary.  Wounded men often lay where they fell for a day or two before being attended to. 

If the initial injury or subsequent blood loss didn’t kill a man, infection would often slowly take his life as a result of lack of wound care, compared to today’s possibilities.

It was during the Battle of Shiloh that a curious observation by the wounded men lying in the field awaiting help was noted in history. During this especially violent encounter, over 16,000 men were wounded by the flying bullets, slashing bayonets and wildly bouncing, bone-breaking cannon balls.  More than 3,000 died. The medics from both the Confederate and Union forces were unprepared for such extraordinary carnage.

Thousands of men were incapacitated and languished in the muddy battlefield for days before anyone was able to attend to them.

During their excruciating existence lying in the open field, many of the soldiers began to notice that their wounds seemed to glow at night. To some, it seemed that they must be suffering hallucinations, but others realized that the wounds were actually emitting a faint light.

The light soon became known as Angels Glow. To the men, it provided some glimmer of hope that their wounds were being attended to by someone from up above, even if there was no mortal soul present to help them.

Interestingly, the survival rate of the soldiers that experienced the glowing phenomenon in their wounds was significantly greater than those that did not. The term Angels Glow turned out to be somewhat prophetic.

At the time, the medical doctors were mystified as to what could possibly be the cause of the curious glow and whether that might be responsible for the men’s higher survival rate.

It was not until 140 years later that a couple of high school student proposed a likely explanation.

In 2001, Bill Martin, a 17 year old along with his friend, Jon Curti,s heard about the eerie light show accompanying the wounded men at Shiloh. Bill’s mom happened to be a research scientist working with soil microbes for the USDA. She was working with Photorhabdus luminescens bacteria, a microbe which has a curious ability to glow in the dark. Bill asked his mom if Photorhabdus luminescens bacteria could be the cause of the glow. She suggested the boys create an experiment to find out.

Their initial research was discouraging. They learned that Photorhabdus luminescens bacteria does not exist in typical human body temperatures. They discovered that it did exist in the Shiloh areas during the time of the Civil War, but since human body temperature is too high for the bacteria to live, this seemed to be the end of that hypothesis.

Their enthusiasm returned when they began to dig deeper into the circumstances of the particular battle. They learned that the wounded soldiers had fallen in battle during heavy rain and had lain where they fell in the cold mud for days. Hypothermia would have set in quickly for the wounded men. The boys realized that hypothermia would lower the body temperature making it possible for the bacteria to exist and thrive. This would explain the occurrence of the light, but what about the improved chances of survival?

I’ll keep the explanation short, but the Photorhabdus luminescens bacteria produce chemicals that have antibiotic properties and tend to kill off other bacteria that cause more dangerous infections. In this way, the presence of the glowing bacteria turned out to be an advantage for the wounded men.

In this example it is easy to see that the presence of specific kinds of bacteria in our bodies can actually be a healthy thing.

Next week I will share with you some very good health-related reasons that you will actually want to have certain types of bacteria living within your body.  It’s not as gross as you might imagine.

Dr. Mark Kestner is a chiropractor in Murfreesboro. His office is at 1435 NW Broad St. Contact him at mkestner@DrKestner.com

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