Research breakthrough burns bright at CMU

Posted: April 2, 2015 at 2:42 am

By Gary McCallister Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Scientists from Colorado Mesa University have made a major breakthrough in genetic research. Dr. Margot Bechtel and Dr. Denise McKenney have teamed up to insert a gene for Luciferase, a bioluminescent protein from fireflies (Photinus pyralis), into sunflowers (Helianthus annuus). While this is not the first gene transfer between multicellular organisms, the difference in this procedure is that the gene can be made to express bioluminescence from the actual flower when the plant is watered with a special solution.

This is a fantastic breakthrough. We have the potential to replace electric lamps with indoor houseplants, reducing electric demand, and providing sources of light using simple chemicals to activate the protein, Bechtel said.

With further development, we might be able to light streets at night using trees and thereby not only save electricity but reduce greenhouse gases, added McKenney.

Scientists made the first transgenic gene transfer between multicellular organisms back in 1986. David W. Ow, Keith V. Wood, Marlene DeLuca, Jeffrey R. de Wet, Donald R. Helinski and Stephen H. Howell were able to transfer the gene for luciferase into a tobacco plant. They were working with the extensive support of the Promega Corporation and used the cauliflower mosaic virus 35S RNA promoter to insert the gene into the tobacco plant.

However, their success was limited in that the bioluminescence was extremely weak. It required as much as eight to 10 hours on a photographic film to be seen. Further, it was only expressed in the early stages of plant growth called the callus. At the time, their stated goal was to create either a self-lighting tobacco for a new cigarette market or to create a plant that could make its own light for photosynthesis, thereby enhancing productivity. This initial attempt falls far short of the current breakthrough that was accomplished with limited resources but new insight and ingenuity.

Local scientists chose the sunflower for their research as a bit of whimsy. According to Bechtel, they thought if they were going to try to create a glowing plant they might as well do one that would be symbolic.

Besides, Helianthus lends itself to growth in our local climate, she said.

With their current procedure, bioluminescence is expressed in the adult stem, leaf and flower at an intensity that is readily visible to the naked eye. It has the added advantage of being able to switch on the luminescence using common chemicals. Previous work has required that the plant be watered with luciferin, the actual luminescent protein, to react with the enzyme luciferase.

We did several things differently from previous researchers. Instead of using a mosaic virus to carry the gene, we utilized Psuedomonas syringae, a common plant pathogen. But our big breakthrough came when we discovered we could turn the production of luciferase on with common, relatively inexpensive chemicals, a mixture of bleach, phosphorus, and hydrogen peroxide, McKenney said.

Research breakthrough burns bright at CMU

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