A firefly alights on a fence post in Oconomowoc, Wis. (John Hart/Wisconsin State Journal via AP)

Luciferase: Few people could say what it is, but just about anyone venturing outside on a summer night would be familiar with it. It's the protein that makes fireflies glow, and a group of researchers thinks it will someday be used to detect cancer and other diseases.

The concept is pretty simple. Proteins essentially act like keys in the body. Their unique shape and structures are designed to attach to specific molecules in the body and cause reactions to take place — like giving off light in fireflies.

A group of Swiss scientists, whose work was published Wednesday in Nature Communications, took the protein from the insects and added a chemical tag so that when it attaches to another molecule, like one on a tumor cell, it will glow.

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The goal is to use these designed proteins to make it faster and cheaper for doctors to diagnose their patients, potentially cutting out expensive readout devices. Scientists, from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Laussane also say it's a highly accurate detection system because the light signal could be seen with a naked eye.

"You can think of the tagged luciferase as a cyborg molecule," said Kai Johnsson, a professor at the Institute, in a statement. "Half bio, half synthetic ... With this chemical trick, all we have to worry about is designing an appropriate tag that can recognize the target protein."


Here is an example of the luminescence produced by the chemical modifications. (Photo courtesy of Kai Johnsson/EPFL)

Johnsson and his colleagues have already used the concept to develop a molecule that monitors drug use, leading to the creation of a startup company called Lucentix in 2014.

The young company is developing test strips that allows people to analyze a drop of blood or spit with the modified proteins. They haven't had any products hit the market yet, but the hope is that someday doctors could quickly be able to tell how much of a drug someone has in his or her system by the color that the strips glow.

The researchers think "biosensors" and the concept of taking advantage of luminescence could have applications throughout medicine, although it would take more research to create a product that's ready for use. Johnsson said that will probably take another two to three years.

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But the medical side of the research is just one part of the puzzle. Scientists are just now detailing the steps needed for proteins to glow during bioluminescence — something that's been a mystery for decades. A group of researchers from Connecticut College and Yale University published a study this week in the Journal of the American Chemical Society that shows the light is the result of a highly reactive molecule, called superoxide ion. It's generally toxic to animals, but it doesn't hurt fireflies because when it reacts and lets off light, it's contained and only happens for a short amount of time.

"We've made a basic scientific advance," said Bruce Branchini, a professor at Connecticut College who led a team reproducing the firefly's glow in a lab. "We hope this will improve practical applications in biomedications."

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