Seeing is Believing: How NanoLuc® Luciferase Illuminates Virus Infections

Artists interpretation of in vivo imaging of viral infections in mice using NanoLuc luciferase.

Wearing blue surgical gowns and white respirator hoods, research scientist Pradeep Uchil and post-doctoral fellow Irfan Ullah carry an anesthetized mouse to the lab’s imaging unit. Two days ago, the mouse was infected with a SARS-CoV-2 virus engineered to produce a bioluminescent protein. After an injection of a bioluminescence substrate, a blue glow starts to emanate from within the mouse’s nasal cavity and chest, visible to the imaging unit’s camera and Uchil’s eyes.

“We were never able to see this kind of signal with retrovirus infections.” Uchil is a research scientist at the Yale School of Medicine whose work focuses on the in vivo imaging of retroviral infections. Normally, the mouse would have to be sacrificed and “opened up” for viral bioluminescent signals from internal tissues to be imaged directly.

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World Firefly Day: Shining More Light on Glo-ing Innovations

On July 3rd and 4th, 2021, we celebrate World Firefly Day. This year, 2021, marks 30 years of luciferase products firefly luciferase vectors and Luciferase Assay System. These tools are key in advancing bioluminescent technology. To celebrate this day, we want to highlight some innovations that have been made possible with these tools.

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Understanding Inflammation: A Faster, Easier Way to Detect Cytokines in Cells

Inflammation, a process that was meant to defend our body from infection, has been found to contribute to a wide range of diseases, such as chronic inflammation, neurodegenerative disorders—and more recently, COVID-19. The development of new tools and methods to measure inflammation is crucial to help researchers understand these diseases.

This diagram shows how the Lumit™ Immuno assay can be used to detect cytokines.

Cytokines—small signaling molecules that regulate inflammation and immunity—have recently become the focus of inflammation research due to their role in causing severe COVID-19 symptoms. In these severe cases, the patient’s immune system responds to the infection with uncontrolled cytokine release and immune cell activation, called the “cytokine storm”. Although the cytokine storm can be treated using established drugs, more research is needed to understand what causes this severe immune response and why only some patients develop it.

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Celebrating 30 Years of “Glo-ing” Research

This post is written by guest blogger, Amy Landreman, PhD, Sr. Product Manger at Promega Corporation.

In December of 1990, Promega first discussed the use of firefly luciferase (luc) as an emerging reporter technology in the article, Firefly Luciferase: A New Tool for Molecular Biologists. At the time, the gene coding chloramphenicol acetyltransferase (cat)  was most commonly used by researchers, but it was thought that the bioluminescent properties of firefly luciferase, extreme sensitivity and rapid simple detection, could make a significant difference in how molecular biologists tackled their research. Several months later, the first firefly luciferase reporter vectors and detection reagents became available as products, making this new technology more broadly accessible to the research community. Today firefly luciferase is no longer a “new tool”, with it and many other bioluminescent reporter technologies being standard elements of the modern research toolbox.

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Bioluminescence and Biotechnology: Shining Nature’s Cool Light on Biology

Imagine you’re taking a refreshing night swim in the warm blue waters of Vieques in Puerto Rico. You splash into the surf and head out to some of the deeper waters of the bay, when what to your wondering eyes should appear, but blue streaks of light in water that once was clear. Do you need to get your eyes checked? Are you hallucinating? No! You’ve just happened upon a cluster of dinoflagellates, harmless bioluminescent microorganisms called plankton, that emit their glow when disturbed by movement. These dinoflagellates are known to inhabit waters throughout the world but are generally not present in large enough numbers to be noticed. There are only five ecosystems in the world where these special bioluminescent bays can be seen, and three of them are in Puerto Rico. 

Bioluminescent plankton exhibit a blue glow when disturbed.
Bioluminescent plankton in the ocean

But you don’t have to travel to Puerto Rico or swim with plankton to see bioluminescence. There are bioluminescent organisms all over the world in many unexpected places. There are bioluminescent mushrooms, bioluminescent sea creatures—both large and small (squid, jellyfish, and shrimp, in addition to the dinoflagellates)—and bioluminescent insects, to name a few. Bioluminescence is simply the ability of living things to produce light.

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Barking Up the Right Tree: Using NanoLuc to Screen for Canine Distemper Antivirals

Canine distemper virus (CDV) is a highly contagious pathogen that is the etiological agent responsible for canine distemper (CD), a systemic disease that affects a broad spectrum of both domestic dogs and wild carnivores. While there are commercially available vaccines for CDV that can provide immunity in vivo and protect canines from contracting CD, there is a strong demand for effective canine distemper antivirals to combat outbreaks. Such drugs remain unavailable to date, largely due to the laborious, time-consuming nature of methods traditionally used for high-throughput drug screening of anti-CDV drugs in vitro. In a recent study published in Frontiers in Veterinary Science, researchers demonstrated a new tool for rapid, high-throughput screening of anti-CDV drugs: a NanoLuc® luciferase-tagged CDV.

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New Bioluminescent Sensor Can Detect Multiple Antibodies in a Single Drop of Blood

nanoluc invivo imaging

Antibody tests are often used to determine whether individuals have been exposed to certain bacteria or viruses. For most existing antibody tests, the process goes something like this: A vial of blood is drawn from the individual, the vial is sent to a lab, then a trained technicians performs the antibody test and sends back the results. The current process is less than ideal for a few reasons. For one, blood draws are invasive and can be painful. Also, getting results could take days, due to the time required to deliver and process the sample. Lastly, costs can be high, since the need for trained professionals and specialized instruments in laboratory settings adds to the cost of each test.

What if all you needed to do for an antibody test was apply a single drop of blood onto a thin piece of film, and you would get results on the spot within five minutes? Scientists have recently developed an antibody test based on bioluminescent technology that could make this a reality. They describe their findings in a recent study published in ACS Sensors.

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NanoLuc® Luciferase: Brighter Days Ahead for In Vivo Imaging

nanoluc in vivo imaging

The development of NanoLuc® luciferase technology has provided researchers with new and better tools to study endogenous biology: how proteins behave in their native environments within cells and tissues. This small (~19kDa) luciferase enzyme, derived from the deep-sea shrimp Oplophorus gracilirostris, offers several advantages over firefly or Renilla luciferase. For an overview of NanoLuc® luciferase applications, see: NanoLuc® Luciferase Powers More than Reporter Assays.

The small size of NanoLuc® luciferase, as well the lack of a requirement for ATP to generate a bioluminescent signal, make it particularly attractive as a reporter for in vivo bioluminescent imaging, both in cells and live animals. Expression of a small reporter molecule as a fusion protein is less likely to interfere with the biological function of the target protein. NanoLuc® Binary Technology (NanoBiT®) takes this approach a step further by creating a complementation reporter system where one subunit is just 11 amino acids in length. This video explains how the high-affinity version of NanoBiT® complementation (HiBiT) works:

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NanoLuc® Luciferase Powers More than Reporter Assays

Bright NanoLuc® Luciferase

NanoLuc® luciferase has been discussed many times on this blog and our web site because the enzyme is integral to studying genetic responses and protein dynamics. While NanoLuc® luciferase was first introduced as a reporter enzyme to assess promoter activity, its capabilities have expanded far beyond a genetic reporter, creating tools used to study endogeneous protein interactions, target engagement, protein degradation and more. So where did the NanoLuc® luciferase come from and how does a one enzyme power several technologies?

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From Live Cells to Lysates: Adapting NanoBiT to a Biochemical Assay Format

The ability to target protein interactions with low solubility or weak binding affinities can present a significant challenge when it comes to drug screening. The beauty of these types of challenges we often face in the lab is that finding solutions to these problems doesn’t necessarily require brand new tools. Sometimes we already have the right tools in our arsenal and, with just a little creativity and collaboration, they can be adapted to address the challenge at hand.

In the following video, Dr. Mohamed (Soly) Ismail, a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Downward Lab of the Francis Crick Institute, presents the perfect example of this with his novel approach to the NanoBiT® Protein:Protein Interaction Assay. Through a collaboration with Promega R&D Scientists, Dr. Ismail has translated the assay into a cell-free, biochemical format, termed the NanoBiT Biochemical Assay (NBBA).

Watch the subtitled version of the video here >

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