Mystery of Glowing Wounds Solved

Kids find the science behind Civil War legend

MONDAY, June 11, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Tales of injured soldiers with wounds that glow in the dark have been told by Civil War buffs for ages.

But now two Maryland teens have figured out the phenomenon and why the soldiers with the glowing wounds might have outlived their wounded comrades.

The teens focused on the bacterium Photorhabdus luminescens, say Jonathan Curtis, 18, and Bill Martin, 17, both of Bowie, Md. The two took one of the top prizes in an international science fair in California this spring for their discovery.

Curtis says not only did the bacterium cause the glowing, but once it got into a wound, it stopped the growth of more life-threatening bacteria and prolonged the person's life.

"Since it was an historical event, we can't really prove … 100 percent that [this bacteria] caused the better survival rate in these soldiers, but we proved it could have caused it," Jonathan says.

Curtis and Martin were mentored for nearly a year by Martin's mother, microbiologist Phyllis Martin, a scientist with the Agricultural Research Service, at her facility's laboratory in Beltsville, Md.

"What they showed was that these bacteria would produce antibiotics. I showed them how to design the antibiotic experiments, but they improved on it. They put all the pieces together," Mrs. Martin says.

The mystery involves the April 1862 battle of Shiloh on the banks of the Tennessee River near Shiloh, Tenn. After three days of fighting, the Confederate forces retreated. Historians list more than 13,000 Union and nearly 11,000 Confederate soldiers dead or missing.

"The battle was so large that the medical establishment was not prepared for this. Soldiers laid in the mud for two days, and it was raining. Those soldiers would have had hypothermia," Curtis says.

That's critical, says Mrs. Martin. "These bacteria [that glow] don't grow at human body temperature. This had to happen at a particular time when it was cold enough that the body temperature would be lowered by hypothermia, but not so cold that the soldiers would freeze to death," she says.

Given the right conditions, the bacteria could have been attracted to the wounded soldiers, the boys say.

"We know that the glowing bacteria live in the guts of nematodes, (small parasitic worms), and we found that these nematodes are attracted to small insects that would have been in the guts or clothing of the soldiers, and [the worms] would have excreted glowing bacteria," Curtis says.

"We believe that would have caused the wounds to glow," he says.

"Since we knew there was a better survival rate among these soldiers, we basically were testing whether P. luminescens could inhibit pathogens [or disease-causing agents]. If it could inhibit pathogens like gangrene, then it could improve their survival rate," Curtis says.

Dealing with pathogens, however, can be tricky. As Mrs. Martin quips, "We didn't want to kill any high school students!" So, she says the young scientists tested the glowing bacteria against a surrogate gangrene, as well as a strain of staphylococcus and several other pathogen stand-ins.

"The glowing bacteria did inhibit pathogens in wound-like conditions," Curtis says. "Right now it's being tested for its insecticidal properties … , but we don't know of anyone else who's tested it for its inhibitive properties."

Mrs. Martin has done some work of her own with the glowing bacteria in attempts to find a non-chemical way to control the pesky Colorado potato beetle. But her research takes a different tack.

"They're looking to kill pathogens," she says of the boys' research. "I'm looking at pathogens to kill insects."

The boys' finding, which stems from Martin's interest in the Civil War and Curtis' bent toward microbiology, earned the boys a $3,000 cash prize from Intel, the computer and communications company that sponsored the International Science and Engineering Fair for high school students, as well as a free trip to San Jose, Calif., for the competition finals last month.

But they're not done yet. Before Curtis heads to college in the fall to study pharmacology and pharmaceutical design and Martin heads back for a final year of high school, the two still have some details to clear up.

"We know that P. luminescens does inhibit pathogens, so now we're trying to figure out what exactly inside it causes this," Curtis says. "After all our studying, we believe it's actually an antibiotic being produced by [the glowing bacteria], and we currently are trying to isolate this."

"It's just interesting, and we just wanted to finish the project," he says.

What To Do

For more on the Civil War battle that generated the legend of the glowing wounds, visit a Web page devoted to the Battle of Shiloh.

And if talk of wounds has made you doubt your own knowledge of basic first aid, check the MedicineNet for information on treating cuts, scrapes and puncture wounds.

Or, read previous HealthDay articles on wounds and war-related health issues.

Related Stories

No stories found.