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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Investigation of Remdesivir as a Possible Treatment for SARS-2-CoV (2019-nCoV)

Remdesivir (RDV or GS-5734) was used in the treatment of the first case of the SARS-CoV-2 (formerly 2019-nCoV ) in the United States (1). RDV is not an approved drug in any country but has been requested by a number of agencies worldwide to help combat the SARS-CoV-2 virus (2). RDV is an adenine nucleotide monophosphate analog demonstrated to inhibit Ebola virus replication (3). RDV is bioactivated to the triphosphate form within cells and acts as an alternative substrate for the replication-necessary RNA dependent RNA polymerase (RdRp). Incorporation of the analog results in early termination of the primer extension product resulting in the inhibition.

 Note the spikes that adorn the outer surface of the virus, which impart the look of a corona surrounding the virion, when viewed electron microscopically. In this view, the protein particles E, S, M, and HE, also located on the outer surface of the particle, have all been labeled as well. A novel coronavirus virus was identified as the cause of an outbreak of respiratory illness first detected in Wuhan, China in 2019.
This illustration, created at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), reveals ultrastructural morphology exhibited by coronaviruses. Photo Credit: Alissa Eckert, MS; Dan Higgins, MAM CDC

Why all the interest in RDV as a treatment for SARS-CoV-2 ? Much of the interest in RDV is due to a series of studies performed by collaborating groups at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill (Ralph S. Baric’s lab) and Vanderbilit University Medical Center (Mark R. Denison’s lab) in collaboration with Gilead Sciences. 

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Designing a Reporter Construct for Analyzing Gene Regulation

Bioluminescent reporter assays are an excellent choice for analyzing gene regulation because they provide higher sensitivity, wider dynamic range and better signal-to-background ratios compared to colorimetric or fluorescent assays. In a typical genetic reporter assay, cells are transfected with a vector that contains the sequence of interest cloned upstream of a reporter gene, and the reporter activity is used to determine how the target sequence influences gene expression under experimental conditions. A second control reporter encoded on the same or a different plasmid is an essential internal control. The secondary reporter is used to normalize the data and compensate for variability caused by differences in cell number, lysis efficiency, cell viability, transfection efficiency, temperature, and measurement time. 

Basic Introduction to the Strategy of Reporter Gene Assays

For genetic reporter assays, using a secondary control vector with a weak promoter like PGK or TK to ensures that the control does not interfere with activation of your primary reporter vector. Transfection of high amounts of the control plasmid or putting the control reporter under control of a strong promoter like CMV or SV40 often leads to transcriptional squelching or other interference with the experimental promoter (i.e., trans effects). Reporter assays can also be used to quantitatively evaluate microRNA activity by inserting miRNA target sites downstream or 3´ of the reporter gene. For example, the pmirGLO Dual-Luciferase miRNA Target Expression Vector is based on dual-luciferase technology, with firefly luciferase as the primary reporter to monitor mRNA regulation and Renilla luciferase as a control reporter for normalization.

Here in Technical Services we often talk with researchers who are just starting their project and looking for advice on designing their genetic reporter vector. They have questions like:

  • How much of the upstream promoter region should be included in the vector?
  • How many copies of a response element will be needed to provide a good response?
  • Does the location of the element or surrounding sequence alter gene regulation?
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Choosing a Tag for Your Protein

Flow diagram for purifying HaloTag fusion proteins
Overview of the HaloTag® Mammalian Protein Purification System.

You have identified and cloned your protein of interest, but you want to explore its function. A protein fusion tag might help with your investigation. However, choosing a tag for your protein depends on what experiments you are planning. Do you want to purify the protein? Would you like to identify interacting proteins by performing pull-down assays? Are you interested in examining the endogenous biology of the protein? Here we cover the advantages and disadvantages of some protein tags to help you select the one that best suits your needs.

Affinity Tags

The most commonly used protein tags fall under the category of affinity tags. This means that the tag binds to another molecule or metal ion, making it easy to purify or pull down your protein of interest. In all cases, the tag will be fused to your protein of interest at either the amino (N) or carboxy (C) terminus by cloning into an expression vector. This protein fusion can then be expressed in cells or cell-free systems, depending on the promoter the vector contains. Continue reading “Choosing a Tag for Your Protein”

Striking Fear into the Heart of Cardiovascular Disease Using Zebrafish and NanoLuc® Luciferase

Representative images of ApoB-LP localization in zebrafish across developmental, genetic, pharmacological and dietary manipulations.
Credit: Figure 5.D of The LipoGlo reporter system for sensitive and specific monitoring of atherogenic lipoproteins by James Thierer, Stephen C. Ekker and Steven A. Farber.
Article licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Cardiovascular diseases, or CVDs, are collectively the most notorious gang of cold-blooded killers threatening human lives today. These unforgiving villains, including the likes of coronary heart disease, cerebrovascular disease and pulmonary embolisms, are jointly responsible for more deaths per year than any other source, securing their seat as the number one cause of human mortality on a global scale.

One of the trademarks of most CVDs is the thickening and stiffening of the arteries, a condition known as atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis is characterized by the accumulation of cholesterol, fats and other substances, which together form plaques in and on the artery walls. These plaques clog or narrow your arteries until they completely block the flow of blood, and can no longer supply sufficient blood to your tissues and organs. Or the plaques can burst, setting off a disastrous chain reaction that begins with a blood clot, and often ends with a heart attack or stroke.

Given the global prevalence and magnitude of this problem, there is a significant and urgent demand for better ways to treat CVDs. In a recent study published in Nature Communications, researchers at the Carnegie Institution for Science, Johns Hopkins University and Mayo Clinic are taking the fight to CVDs through the study of low-density lipoproteins (LDLs), the particles responsible for shuttling bad cholesterol throughout the bloodstream.

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