Scientists develop “synthetic bioluminescent molecules” to make cells glow bright enough to be seen from outside the human body
08/15/2018 // David Williams // Views

Thanks to science, humans have been able to mimic the characteristics of many different animals. One example of this is human flight, which was made possible by drawing inspiration from the movement of birds, first and foremost. Now a team of Japanese researchers wants to take inspiration from fireflies and jellyfish by unlocking bioluminescence in humans. In a recent study, it appears that the team has been able to do just that.

According to a paper titled, "Single-cell bioluminescence imaging of deep tissue in freely moving animals," which was published recently in the journal Science, researchers from the RIKEN Brain Science Institute in Japan were able to create lab mice that had glowing neurons inside of their brains. To be more specific, the brains of the lab mice had glowing neurons in the hippocampus, which is said to be the center of the autonomic nervous system. These glowing neurons allowed observers from the outside to see changes to the brain in real time as the mice began learning and taking note of things about their environment.

More than simply being just a neat parlor trick, the existence of the glowing neurons were meant to help researchers track individual cells in the animals with surprising accuracy. This method could also be applied to keep track of things like immune cells, stem cells, or even tumor cells to see where exactly they move in the body and how they move in the first place.

For their mice experiments, the researchers focused on the hippocampus as they moved the animals from one cage to another. This showed them the changes to the brains of the mice as the mice began to get used to their new home. The researchers also used the exact same process to perform a separate experiment, wherein they tracked down the neurons in the brains of marmosets for a period of more than one year. All things considered, these experiments showed for the very first time that it's possible to keep a close eye on changes to an animal's brain for long periods of time from outside of that animal's body.


This is according to Atsushi Miyawaki, the lead researcher of the study. He said in a statement, "This is the first time such a small ensemble of a few dozen deep neurons related to a specific learning behavior can be visualized non-invasively." The beauty of this method is that the researchers were able to perform their observations just by looking at the animals. The light from the neurons was said to be so bright that they could shine right through the skulls of both the mice and the marmosets.

Such is the power of bioluminescence, which is something that occurs naturally in certain animal species like fireflies and jellyfish. Although the fact that certain animals possessed this ability was known to scientists for much of recorded history, it wasn't well-understood until fairly recently. Now that the chemical reactions that cause it to occur in the first place can be performed by humans in labs, scientists have started looking into possible future applications.

An accompanying article to the research paper, written by Robert Campbell from the University of Alberta in Canada, has described the work as a "substantial leap forward" that could help in analyzing how cancer spreads around the body as well as how effective gene therapy is when used on the human body. These findings could someday lead to better ways of observing all sorts of changes to the cells in cancer patients, and possibly improve current forms of treatment for them as well. It will be up to the researchers to find a good way of applying the results of their research for the benefit of all humans in the future.

Read more studies and stories about bioluminescence at

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