The growing, glowing future of bioluminescent technology – Justin Smith

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  Posted by: The Probe      8th June 2019

Bioluminescence is the production and emission of a visible light from a living organism. It has been estimated that more than 75 per cent of deep-sea creatures produce their own light[1]and certain types of algae, bacteria, insects and fungi are also capable of bioluminescence. In 1832, as Charles Darwin approached Cape Horn he observed bioluminescent plankton and noted in his famous Beagle Diary: “The sea from its extreme luminousness presented a wonderful most beautiful appearance; every part of the water, which by day is seen as foam, glowed with a pale light.”[2]Here he was witnessing a marvel of nature, whichenables organisms to send a glowing chemical signal for essential purposes such as defence, communication, feeding and breeding.

Bioluminescence is a chemical reaction within an organism that contains the pigment luciferin, and often the enzyme luciferase, which upon oxidation, produces light. Interestingly, some organisms gather up luciferin and oxygen into a package called a photoprotein, which remains ready to light up the moment that certain ions, (usually calcium) become present.[3]


Throughout history, humans have made use of bioluminescence. For instance, glowing fungi were used to guide tribes through dense jungles and miners used fireflies to create some of the earliest safety lamps.Researchers and scientists have continued to find ways to use bioluminescence and more recently, plants have been infused with the genes of fireflies to create glowing greenery. The researchers believe that, with further optimisation, a plant could be engineered to produce visible light and sustainable illumination for example, as an indoor plant that would also function as a desk lamp.[4]Maybe if the work by students from the University of Cambridge progresses successfully, one day it may even be possible to develop cost effective glowing trees to light up our towns and streets.[5]Currently, it is possible to introduce a harmless bioluminescent marine bacterium into water supplies that produces a specific output in response to toxicity such as heavy metals and pesticides.[6]This fast and cost effective test can be used to monitor drinking water in many countries and cities where contamination is a concern.[7]

The use of fluorescent proteins has helped scientists to examine the basic biology of animal cells and the effects of disease. In the last decade, bioluminescence has been used to reveal the pathways of tracked drugs and cells to help identify and understand the way the body reacts to certain infections or cell functions.[8]Most recently, bioluminescence has been used to develop opticalimaging technology for in vitro and ex vitro applications in molecular and cellular biology. For example, a new kind of bioluminescent sensor has been developed by scientists from the Vanderbilt University to track the interactions of individual cells within the large neural networks of the brain.[9]Non-invasive bioluminescence imaging techniques are also being developed to tag nerves with markers to guide surgeons and to avoid any harm.

As a new research tool and based on its speed, convenience and versatility, bioluminescence has been described as indispensable for studying many aspects of cancer biology, including dynamic invasion and metastasis.[10] There is also an exciting field of study called ‘colour-coded surgery’, whereby bioluminescence is used to locate malignant tumours in cancer patients for more effective surgical extraction. The tumour acts as a glowing beacon so that the surgeon can easily locate it as well as any other malignant tissues. Chemical engineers continue to extend developments with bioluminescence to achieve more thorough and less invasive surgical options as well as higher success rates.[11]

Speaking of success – bioluminescence is currently revolutionising preventive dentistry. Using a specific luminescent photoprotein the CALCIVIS®imaging system is able to visualise active demineralisation on tooth surfaces to improve the assessment and management of dental caries and erosion. Never before has it been possible to see the very early stages of enamel demineralisation but the CALCIVIS imaging system allows dental practitioners and their patients to see the previously invisible. The device works by applying a photoprotein that produces a light exclusively as a reaction to free calcium ions as they are released from actively demineralising tooth surfaces. An integrated sensor within the CALCIVIS system immediately detects the luminescent light signal and displays a visual map of demineralisation at the chair side. This simple, non-invasive system supports the minimally-invasive approach and as patients are able to see the ‘hot spots’ on their teeth illuminated in front of them, it improves patient motivation and their compliance towards preventive measures to protect the teeth from any further damage.

As one of nature’s incredible biological phenomenon, bioluminescence represents a bright future. Whilst some experts were previously sceptical about bioluminescent technology, recent innovations have challenged that idea and demonstrate, its many, exceptionally valuable applications.


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[1]Martini S. et al. Quantification of bioluminescence from the surface to the deep sea demonstrates its predominance as a ecological trait. Scientific reports 7, Article Number 45750 (2017).[Accessed 18th February 2019]

[2]Charles Darwin’s Beagle Diary. Edited by R.D. Keynes, 2001. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.[Accessed 18thFebruary 2019]

[3]Smithsonian. Ocean find your blue. Bioluminescence, April 2018.[Accessed 18th February 2018]

[4]Seon-Yeong Kwak et al. 2017. A Nanobionic Light-Emitting Plant. Nano Letters17 (12): 7951-7961.[Accessed 18th February 2019]

[5]New Scientist: Glowing trees could light up city streets. November 2010.[Accessed 18thFebruary 2018]

[6]R Tecon et al. Bacterial biosensors for measuring availability of environmental pollutants. Sensors (Basel) 2008 Jul; 8(7): 4062-4080.[Accessed 18thFebruary 2019]

[7]Modern Water. Toxicity Monitoring.[Accessed 18th Feburary 2018]

[8]KE Luker & GD Luker, Bioluminescence Imaging of Reporter Mice for Studies of Infection and Inflammation. Antiviral Res. 2010 Apr; 86(1): 93-100. Link:[Accessed 18th February 2019]

[9]Vanderbilt University. Bioluminescent sensor causes brain cells to glow in the dark. ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 27 October 2016.[Accessed 18th February 2019]

[10]Imamura T. et al. In vivo optical imaging of cancer cell function and tumor microenvironment. Cancer Sci. 2018 Apr; 109(4): 912–918.[Accessed 18thFebruary 2019]

[11]Margaret Perry. The Science and Application of Bioluminescence.  University of Pittsburgh, The Pitt Pulse. Winter 2016 Vol 7 (2).[Accessed 18th February 2019]

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