Sparked by Nature: The Many Inventions of Emmett Chappelle

In 2007, at the age of 82, Chappelle was added to the National Inventors Hall of Fame for his work on bioluminescence.

Did you know that birds inspired the first airplanes? Scientists often get ideas from nature. Scientist Emmett Chappelle got some of his ideas from fireflies. He noticed a firefly’s ability to make light, or bioluminescence.

Chappelle worked for NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration). While he worked there, he experimented with the two chemicals in fireflies that are used to make their light—luciferase and luciferin. He discovered that other living organisms could emit light when he added the two chemicals to them. His discovery involving bioluminescence facilitated many important findings in science. He added the chemicals to different substances, and if those substances emitted light, that meant there was a living thing present. He wanted to find a way for scientists to detect bacteria in soil from Mars. He made the hypothesis that if they added the chemicals to the soil and it glowed, that would mean there was something living in space! Scientists have not yet been able to test Chappelle’s hypothesis with soil from Mars. However, his discovery is used today to find bacteria in urine, blood, drinking water, and food.

Emmett Chappelle did experiments with the chemicals that make fireflies glow.

In addition to working on bioluminescence, Chappelle made many other discoveries during his time at NASA. His research helped create a way for astronauts to receive oxygen in space. He realized they could do this by sending plants on the spacecraft with astronauts. The plants could safely convert carbon dioxide into oxygen.

Chappelle’s work was so innovative that it led to 14 United States patents. Patents are given to new discoveries and ideas. He is also recognized as one of the top 100 African American scientists and engineers of the twentieth century. Throughout his career, he shared his expertise by mentoring high school and college students of minority backgrounds.

What Do You Think?  What are some other inventions you can think of that have been inspired by nature?

Photo Credit: (t)NASA Image Collection/Alamy Stock Photo, (b)Fer Gregory/Shutterstock