The light produced by fireflies has become an important tool for molecular biologists. Firefly bioluminescence -- produced by the luciferase conversion of luciferin to oxyluciferin -- was first identified, characterised and developed into the luciferase reporter assay by researchers at the University of California, San Diego, in 1986.
Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) serves as the genetic material in cells. A promoter sequence of DNA controls the expression of a gene -- a sequence of DNA that produces a specific protein. As a separate piece of DNA, a plasmid contains a gene, such as luciferase.
A scientist constructs a plasmid that contains a promoter and the luciferase gene. This plasmid is transfected -- introduced biologically, chemically or mechanically -- into an animal cell, and later that cell's broken open to release any produced luciferase. Luciferin is added to this cell mix, and the amount of bioluminescence produced by the luciferase conversion of luciferin to oxyluciferin is measured. Kits and detailed protocols are commercially available for this assay.
The amount of bioluminescence produced in this assay is proportional to the strength of the promoter, and therefore serves as a useful method for comparing different promoters. This becomes important in industrial settings, as optimised promoters could increase the amount of protein produced in the same amount of time.
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