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The Civil War was a remarkable incident in American history for many reasons, but one that you’ve likely never heard of is that some of the soldiers glowed in the dark. In 1862, General Ulysses S. Grant was deep in Confederate territory, camped near Shiloh.
Early in April, Confederate troops attacked in a surprise move, hoping to wipe out the army before any reinforcements arrived. Grant’s men held them off until a second army arrived and the Union had over 10,000 more men than the Confederates.
Unsurprisingly, the Confederates retreated and the battle left a total of 16,000 soldiers wounded with 3,000 dead. Infections claimed many of the injured as the doctors didn’t fully understand disease, they were under-equipped, and the soldiers had spent months in harsh conditions, weakening their immune systems.
But some of the soldiers spent two full days sitting in the mud waiting for medics. And on the first night, they noticed that their wounds were glowing ever so slightly. When they did finally get treated, those who glowed seemed more likely to survive and healed faster.
It took until 2001 before anyone could figure out why these soldiers were luminescent. Bill Martin, a 17-year-old, was fascinated with the glowing soldiers, and his mother just so happened to study luminescent bacteria. So mother and son decided to do some research.
It turns out that the microorganisms that Martin’s mom studies are called P. luminescens, and the conditions at that battle were just right for them to thrive and glow. They did a few experiments but found that the bacteria didn’t live in humans; the body temperature was too high. But when they finally realized that the soldiers would have hypothermia after spending days in the rain during a cool Tennessee spring, they realized that the bacteria could have survived.
Even more amazingly, the bacteria would have helped save lives since it uses chemicals to kill off competition and that could have killed other bacteria living in the wounds. They cleaned out immune systems and made glowing soldiers.