Medical Uses of Bioluminescence

Medical Uses of Bioluminescence

Bioluminescence is nature’s chemical flashlight. Flash lighting enlightens the deep waters, caves, and beaches with its beautiful greenish glow.

This natural light is caused by a protein called “ luciferin”. The light is naturally produced because of a chemical reaction between the luciferase enzyme and some added energy like sugar and oxygen. Luciferin can be found in marine creatures, specific bacteria, planktons, some algae, and mushrooms.

All the living creatures on land and those in water use similar biological processes to produce bioluminescence. Both aquatic and terrestrial bioluminescent organisms use luciferase and luciferin to produce light, but the structures of these bioluminescent components can be different depending on the type of organism. Bioluminescent organisms can also produce various colors of light because their luciferase and luciferin are chemically different from each other.

The color of the bioluminescent light depends upon the living conditions of the organism (aquatic or terrestrial). The aquatic organisms usually produce green or blue-green light because these colors appear well in the water without being absorbed. However, the terrestrial organisms, such as railroad worms and fireflies usually produce green, red or yellow light.

More than half of all phyla in the animal kingdom contain bioluminescence producing organisms. Bioluminescence is a natural process. It serves many natural purposes such as camouflage, attracting a mate, attracting prey, deterring predators and aiding in hunting. Bioluminescence is beneficial not only for bioluminescent organisms but also for humans.

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Uses of Bioluminescence

Scientists have used bioluminescent organisms for various medical and scientific purposes. Some of the uses of these organisms are followings:

Cellular and Medicine Research

Some of the jellyfishes such as Aqueorea victoria show bioluminescence. A glowing protein is extracted from this jellyfish. It is used in much cellular research and medicine.

Neurological Diseases

The bioluminescent genes of bioluminescent organisms have been used to treat neurological diseases, such as Parkinson’s.

The Japanese scientists have has inserted the bioluminescent genes into the mammals’ cells in the hope of creating animal models for neurological diseases.


The bioluminescent genes are used to track the spread of FIV/HIV virus. Researchers have also successfully injected the genes directly into the unfertilized eggs of cat to track the spread of FIV, which moves in a similar way of human HIV.

HIV Path Detection 

In a new study, scientists have attempted to track the transmission of HIV between heterosexual females and males. During this study, a virus like HIV called SIV (simian immunodeficiency virus) has been used. The luciferase gene was genetically inserted into the simian immunodeficiency virus and was introduced into the vaginas of healthy rhesus macaques.

During this study, the newly infected cells glowed and revealed the pathway of infection. It showed that SIV does not enter by the cervix. It showed a similar pathway as that of human HIV.

Bioluminescent Imaging

Luciferase enzyme of the firefly is also very beneficial in the medical field. It is considered as the “brighter” form of bioluminescence and glows yellow-green while another marine organism glows blue-green.

The extracted fluorescent protein is often used in bioluminescent imaging. The bioluminescent imaging allows neurologists to observe individual neurons. Bioluminescence imaging is also beneficial in studying the rodent models of cancer spread such as the mouse models of breast cancer metastasis. The bioluminescent imaging technology is also helpful in vivo studies of infection.

This technology is also helpful in the study of cancer progression using a bioluminescent cancer cell line. The reconstitution kinetics can also be performed using bioluminescent stem cells.

It is also effective in the determination of the effectiveness of “cancer drugs” that choke off a tumor’s blood supply. During this technique, luciferin is added to the bloodstream. The luciferin enzyme travels throughout the body via blood and reaches the cell to carry the firefly gene.

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Bioluminescence Resonance Energy Transfer

This technology has been used to monitor protein-protein interactions in plants and mammalian cells.

Plant Biology 

The bioluminescence system of firefly has also been used by the plant biologists to create glowing tobacco for research purposes. It is a new way to study plant cell biology. This process is used to study various parts of plants.

Detection of the Blood Clot 

Many studies show that firefly luciferase act as an imaging agent. It helps in monitoring the patients treated with heparin. Heparin is a blood thinner and is used to prevent blood clots. The scientists have used a technique in which firefly luciferase is mixed with a dye that coaxes the protein to emit near-infrared light. This newly formed mixture can detect even the tiny amount of a blood protein, called as factor Xa. It also helps in monitoring the effectiveness of heparin treatment.

The link between Placenta and Fetus

Bioluminescent imaging of firefly luciferase has been used on the pregnant mice to observe the transport functions of the blood-placenta barrier (BPB). This study has also helped in knowing the process by which it protects the fetus from the toxic substances ingested by the mother.

This research can also help to understand the function of the blood-brain barrier. This barrier controls the entrance of molecules from the brain’s vascular system.

Selection of Antibiotics

The bioluminescent genes also help in the selection of the appropriate antibiotic. For this purpose, bioluminescent genes were inserted into the salmonella bacteria which caused them to glow. This process helps in observing the spread of infection and tract the root of the infection. It can also help in the selection of appropriate antibiotic by observing the reduction of the bacteria with the use of various antibiotics.

Gene Therapy

The studies suggest that the use of bioluminescence gene system can also help in studying the location of cells being altered by the process of gene therapy.

It can also help in identifying whether the cells produce the proper proteins after modification.

Number of ATP and Calcium

The firefly luciferin Bioluminescence system is also used to tracing the cellular levels of ATP and calcium. ATP is the stored energy in cells. The number of ATP is directly proportional to the number of cells present.

Final Thoughts 

Bioluminescent is found in many organisms. It is used in many pieces of researches of medical field which is beneficial for human. More research is required to investigate its uses for human.

Hilary Jensen

Hilary is a Food Science and Nutrition graduate with specialization in diet planning and weight loss. She enjoys reading and writing on Food, Nutrition, Diet, Weight Loss, and General Health.

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