Sometimes on a calm summer or fall night, one is able to observe the beautiful dance of blinking fireflies. Scientists began to explore mechanisms to describe this unique natural phenomenon as early as the late 1800’s. After a series of experiments with solutions at different temperature with ground up abdomens of fireflies, Raphael Dubois named the enzyme luciferase and the substrate luciferin that were the cause of the light-producing reaction (1). But it wasn’t until recently in 1985 that scientists were able to clone the gene for luciferase and express it in bacteria to produce the luciferase.
Once the gene was cloned, genetic researchers realized the importance of the findings and started to use it as a reporter gene for experimental gene therapy. Gene therapies involve transfection of new genetic material into the host’s DNA and can be applied not only for therapies for diseases of genetic origin, but can be used for cancer therapy and diagnostic purposes.
By incorporating the gene for luciferase along with the gene of interest, the Hai-Quan Mao lab in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University can detect whether or not their nanoparticles used for gene delivery have been successful simply by adding luciferin to the cells. If the gene transfer was successful, then the luciferase will act on the substrate luciferin to emit light.
1) Fraga, Hugo. “Firefly luminescence: A historical perspective and recent developments.” Photochemical & Photobiological Sciences 7.2 (2008): 146-158.
About the author: John Hickey is a second year Biomedical Engineering PhD candidate in the Jon Schneck lab researching the use of different biomaterials for immunotherapies and microfluidics in identifying rare immune cells.
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