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Bioluminescence is the production and emission of light by a living organism...

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- Bioluminescence

Luciferase can be produced in the lab through genetic engineering for a number of purposes. Luciferase genes can be synthesized and inserted into organisms or transfected into cells. Mice, silkworms, and potatoes are just a few organisms that have already been engineered to produce the protein. Light is emitted when luciferase is exposed to the appropriate luciferin substrate. Photon emission can be detected by light sensitive apparatus such as a luminometer or modified optical microscopes. This allows observation of biological processes and stages of infection, for example. Luciferase can be used in blood banks to determine if red blood cells are starting to break down. Forensic investigators can use a dilute solution containing the enzyme to uncover traces of blood remaining on surfaces at a crime scene. Laboratories can employ luciferase to emit light in the presence of certain diseases. Luciferase is used as a reporter protein in molecular studies, for example to test the activity of transcription from specific promoters in with luciferase transfected cells, or to detect the level of cellular ATP. Luciferase is a very heat sensitive protein that is used in studies on protein denaturation, testing the protective capacities of heat shock proteins. The opportunities for using luciferase continue to expand.

Applications of chemoluminescence


Gas analysis: for determining small amounts of impurities or poisons in air. Other compounds can also be determined by this method (ozone, N-oxides, S-compounds). Typical example is NO determination with detection limits down to 1 ppb analysis of inorganic species in liquid phase analysis of organic species: useful with enzymes, where the substrate isn't directly involved in chemiluminescence reaction, but the product is.

Bioluminescent organisms are a target for many areas of research. Luciferase systems are widely used in the field of genetic engineering as reporter genes. Luciferase systems have also been harnessed for biomedical research using bioluminescence imaging. Vibrio symbiosis with numerous marine invertebrates and fish, namely the Hawaiian bobtail squid (Euprymna scolopes) is a key experimental model for symbiosis, quorum sensing, and bioluminescence. The structure of photophores, the light producing organs in bioluminescent organisms, is being investigated by industrial designers.

Some proposed applications of engineered bioluminescence include:

  • Christmas trees that don't need lights, reducing dangerous electronics                
  • Glowing trees to line highways to save government electricity bills             
  • Agricultural crops and domestic plants that luminesce when they need watering     
  • New methods for detecting bacterial contamination of meats and other foods          
  • Bio-identifiers for escaped convicts and mental patients                                   
  • Detecting bacterial species in suspicious corpses                                                   
  • Novelty pets that bioluminesce (rabbits, mice, fish etc.)
 "Artificial" bioluminescence induced by genetic engineering of a tobacco plant
 Image of bioluminescent red tide event of 2005 at a beach in Carlsbad California showing brilliantly glowing crashing waves containing billions of Lingulodinium polyedrum dinoflagellates. The phenomenon is thought to have something to do with quorum sensing.


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