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Day-Glo eels

June 20, 2013

I’m sure most of you are familiar with the idea of glow-in-the-dark organisms. From fireflies to jellyfish to some seriously fugly deep-sea creatures, bioluminescence is a pretty well-documented phenomenon. In fact, we use the fluorescent proteins from these organisms to do all kinds of cool science. We can use them to look at cell structures under microscopes, trace neuronal pathways through the brain, and so much more.

Behold, the glorious rat colon as you’ve never seen it before.

However, scientists in Japan recently discovered the world’s first known fluorescent vertebrate – the Unagi eel. You may have already met one of these lil’ guys atop a sushi roll (seriously tasty), because they’re frequently used in Japanese cuisine. When blue light is shone on these eels they emit a green light – prompting scientists to investigate what the fluorescing molecule might be. Turns out it’s a whole new type of fluorophore, now named UnaG for “Unagi Green.” Interestingly, they discovered it only glows when it binds to something called “bilirubin.”

chemistry, boom

So what the heck is bilirubin and who cares, right? Wrong! YOU care! Bilirubin is a breakdown product of blood hemoglobin (the stuff that carries oxygen around in your blood and, you know, keeps you alive). When it accumulates it can lead to yellowing of the skin and eyes, a condition known as jaundice. Toxicity isn’t an issue in healthy people because they can quickly clear it from their systems, whereas people with liver failure cannot.  Doctors are therefore able to measure liver function via bilirubin levels in the blood. And now we have this handy little protein that will glow bright green when it interacts with bilirubin. The hope is to produce an assay that can be quickly and reliably used to measure liver function by simply mixing blood serum with some UnaG and seeing if it glows. So easy it can be done by anyone!

She’s not even a real doctor.

In any case, I think we can all agree that streamlining and simplifying any diagnostic tool for the clinic can generally be regarded as a cool thing. The glow-in-the-dark part just makes it extra funsies.

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From → Biology

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