In living color: seeing cells from outside the body with synthetic bioluminescence
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VIDEO: An example of bioluminescence imaging of Akaluc expression in the striatum of two freely moving rats. view more 

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Glowing creatures like fireflies and jellyfish are captivating to look at but also a boon for science, as their bioluminescent molecules contribute to visualizing a host of biological processes. Now, scientists in Japan have supercharged these molecules, making them hundreds of times brighter in deep tissues and allowing for imaging of cells from outside the body. The bioengineered light source was used to track cancer cells in mice and brain-cell activity in monkeys, but its applications extend beyond the lab.

Bioluminescence is the result of a partnership: an enzyme–in this case luciferase derived from fireflies–catalyzes the substrate D-luciferin, creating a green-yellow glow in the process. There has been considerable research to make this process more efficient. For example, swapping out luciferin for synthetic analogs and improving the rate of catalysis. Atsushi Miyawaki and colleagues sought to go further, refining both ingredients to create AkaBLI, a completely bioengineered bioluminescence system for in vivo use. The collaboration with the University of Electro-Communications, Tokyo Institute of Technology and Kyoto University was led by Miyawaki of the RIKEN Brain Science Institute and published on February

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