Firefly compound lights up 'protein dance' in living animals

St. Louis, July 29, 2004 -- Radiologists at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis have developed a first-of-its-kind noninvasive imaging technique that allows them to watch two proteins interacting in live animals.

The technique genetically fuses proteins of interest with carefully cleaved sections of luciferase, the protein fireflies use to create light. When the target proteins interact, the sections of luciferase come together and create light that can be detected outside the body by a highly sensitive camera.

"Instead of looking at a protein by itself, this technique lets us see when two proteins come together and dance," says David Piwnica-Worms, M.D., Ph.D., professor of molecular biology and pharmacology and of radiology. "Those kinds of interactions are very important for many different processes, and they're also key to developing and evaluating new drugs."

Piwnica-Worms and colleagues demonstrated the technique's feasibility on human proteins that interact in the presence of the antibiotic rapamycin. The research appears today in the online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and will appear in print in the Aug. 17 issue of the journal.

According to Piwnica-Worms, understanding protein interactions has become much more important to biologists in recent years. "We've learned that the human genetic code only has a fraction of the genes we expected, and as a result it's become clear that the context of protein-to-protein interactions significantly affects what proteins can do," he explains. "That's what lets us get away with so few genes -- the same protein can do different things based on when or where it's used." Scientists have studied these interactions previously in cell cultures and in solutions obtained by carefully opening up cells. Luciferase has been used previously to identify the presence of molecules in the cell and in live animals, but this is the first time

Contact: Michael C. Purdy
Washington University School of Medicine

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