Glowing Science

Join members of the Centre for Translational Pharmacology as we share how glowing proteins help us discover new medicines!

Light-emitting proteins can be found naturally in species such as jellyfish and fireflies.  In the lab, these fluorescent and bioluminescent proteins can help us visualise structures and processes inside living cells.  We can use these proteins to design biosensors which can measure biological activity in real time.  Understanding differences in activity between healthy and diseased cells can help us develop new medicines to fix these signals.

A neuron, or brain cell, glows green on a black background.
A neuron, or brain cell, expressing a green fluorescent protein.  Image credit - Beth Strellis.

Our Activities

Frequently Asked Questions

What is Fluorescence?

The electromagnetic spectrum is made up of visible light (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo & violet) and invisible light (e.g. ultraviolet, x-rays, infrared). Each type of electromagnetic radiation has a different wavelength. For example, red light has a longer wavelength than violet light.

Fluorescence is the emission of light by a substance, object (gemstones), plant or animal (jellyfish, corals) that has absorbed light of a particular wavelength, and then releases light of a different wavelength. In most cases, fluorescent objects absorb light of a shorter wavelength and emit light at a longer wavelength. This is because the emitted light has less energy than the one that was absorbed. There are, however, exceptions to this rule.

Fluorescence is a useful concept for scientific research and has become widely used in a variety of research areas such as cell biology, physiology and chemistry. Most commonly, fluorescent dyes and labels can be used to let scientists ‘see’ different molecules, structures or cell types.

What is Bioluminescence?

Bioluminescence is when light is released by a chemical reaction inside a living organism. Bioluminescent proteins have been found in many creatures such as fireflies, sea shrimp and bacteria.

The energy for bioluminescence is provided by a substrate called luciferin interacting with an enzyme and producing light as a byproduct of a chemical reaction.  This is different from fluorescence where the energy is provided by a different wavelength of light.

Bioluminescent proteins are also used extensively in scientific research in techniques such as BRET.

How does invisible ink work?

Invisible ink is a great example of fluorescence

Remember, fluorescence means a substance can absorb light of one particular wavelength (or colour) and release light of a different wavelength.

When invisible ink is exposed to normal visible light we can’t see anything, but the ink can absorb invisible ultraviolet light from a UV torch and emit a different wavelength of light that we can see.

A cartoon schematic showing how invisible ink cannot absorb visible light, meaning we can't see it, but can absorb UV light and emit light we can see

What is BRET?

BRET (Bioluminescent Resonance Energy Transfer) is a technique we can use to measure interactions between molecules inside living cells. This is important as it can help us understand how cells behave during disease, and how to find new, better medicines.

We label one molecule with a luminescent protein which gives off light like a torch, and label another molecule with a fluorescent protein like invisible ink. When the labels are far apart we can’t see any fluorescence, but if the two molecules interact energy transfer occurs and we can measure the fluorescent light which is released.

Illustration of Bioluminescent Resonance Energy Transfer technique as described in the text above.

How can we get involved?

If you are interested in having Glowing Science at your school or event, you can find our offer on the STEM Ambassadors platform.

Our activities are best suited to a table-top science festival-type event, where we can engage several small groups of students or families for 10-15 minute intervals.