A new protein that glows

Print edition : June 21, 2019

Petri dish with bacteria genetically modified to produce a fluorescent protein. The glowing symbol is the logo of the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology. Photo: Vera Nazarenkoetal

Biophysicists from the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (MIPT), together with researchers from France and Germany, have created a new miniature fluorescent protein which glows when ultraviolet and blue light are shone on it. It is also stable at high temperatures. The work has been published in the journal “Photochemical & Photobiological Sciences”. According to the authors, this protein holds promise for fluorescence microscopy which is used in research on cancer, infectious diseases and organ development, among other things.

The Nobel Prize-winning technique of fluorescence microscopy is used for studying living tissue that relies on induced luminescence. When exposed to laser radiation at a particular wavelength, some proteins emit light at a different wavelength. This “induced glow” is analysed using a special microscope. By genetic engineering, such fluorescent proteins are tagged to other proteins to make the latter visible so that their behaviour in cells can be studied.

The researchers originally identified the new protein in the cells of a thermophilic bacterium, or one which lives in high-temperature environments such as hot springs. They then genetically engineered a DNA sequence that reproduced the protein’s fluorescent segment but not the other parts, which would make the molecule larger. By introducing the gene that encodes the protein into the cells of another bacterium, Escherichia coli, the new fluorescent protein with unique properties could be mass produced.

Researchers studying cellular processes have been waiting for such a protein for a long time. By introducing it into cells, they can now obtain essential data on cell life and death. For example, fluorescence microscopy is seen as one of the best tools for investigating the mechanism behind malignant tumour genesis and development. It is also useful for studying cell signalling and organ development.

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