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Concept: Luciferin


Bioluminescent imaging (BLI) has been widely applicable in the imaging of process envisioned in life sciences. As the most conventional technique for BLI, the firefly luciferin-luciferase system is exceptionally functional in vitro and in vivo. The state-of-the-art strategy in such a system is to cage the luciferin, in which free luciferin is conjugated with distinctive functional groups, thus accommodating an impressive toolkit for exploring various biological processes, such as monitoring enzymes activity, detecting bioactive small molecules, evaluating the properties of molecular transporters, etc. This review article summarizes the rational design of caged luciferins towards diverse biotargets, as well as their applications in bioluminescent imaging. It should be emphasized that these caged luciferins can stretch out the applications of bioluminescence imaging and shed light upon understanding the pathogenesis of various diseases.

Concepts: Fungus, In vivo, In vitro, Firefly, Bioluminescence, Luciferase, Luciferin, Bioluminescence imaging


Firefly luciferase is the most important and studied bioluminescence system. Due to very interesting characteristics, this system has gained numerous biomedical, pharmaceutical and bioanalytical applications, among others. In order to improve the use of this system, various researchers have tried to understand experimentally the colour of bioluminescence, and to create ways of tuning the colour emitted. The objective of this manuscript is to review the experimental studies of firefly luciferin and oxyluciferin, and related analogues, fluorescence and bioluminescence.

Concepts: Light, Science, Quorum sensing, Firefly, Bioluminescence, Luciferase, Luciferin, Coelenterazine


Firefly luciferase is the most widely used optical reporter for noninvasive bioluminescence imaging (BLI) in rodents. BLI relies on the ability of the injected luciferase substrate D-luciferin to access luciferase-expressing cells and tissues within the animal. Here we show that injection of mice with a synthetic luciferin, CycLuc1, improves BLI with existing luciferase reporters and enables imaging in the brain that could not be achieved with D-luciferin.

Concepts: Enzyme, Mouse, Firefly, Bioluminescence, Luciferase, Luciferin, Coelenterazine, Photoprotein


Bioluminescence imaging is a powerful approach for visualizing specific events occurring inside live mice. Animals can be made to glow in response to the expression of a gene, the activity of an enzyme, or the growth of a tumor. But bioluminescence requires the interaction of a luciferase enzyme with a small-molecule luciferin, and its scope has been limited by the mere handful of natural combinations. Herein, we show that mutants of firefly luciferase can discriminate between natural and synthetic substrates in the brains of live mice. When using adeno-associated viral (AAV) vectors to express luciferases in the brain, we found that mutant luciferases that are inactive or weakly active with d-luciferin can light up brightly when treated with the aminoluciferins CycLuc1 and CycLuc2 or their respective FAAH-sensitive luciferin amides. Further development of selective luciferases promises to expand the power of bioluminescence and allow multiple events to be imaged in the same live animal.

Concepts: Gene, Enzyme, Quorum sensing, Mouse, Firefly, Bioluminescence, Luciferase, Luciferin


The New Zealand glowworm, Arachnocampa luminosa, is well-known for displays of blue-green bioluminescence, but details of its bioluminescent chemistry have been elusive. The glowworm is evolutionarily distant from other bioluminescent creatures studied in detail, including the firefly. We have isolated and characterised the molecular components of the glowworm luciferase-luciferin system using chromatography, mass spectrometry and1H NMR spectroscopy. The purified luciferase enzyme is in the same protein family as firefly luciferase (31% sequence identity). However, the luciferin substrate of this enzyme is produced from xanthurenic acid and tyrosine, and is entirely different to that of the firefly and known luciferins of other glowing creatures. A candidate luciferin structure is proposed, which needs to be confirmed by chemical synthesis and bioluminescence assays. These findings show that luciferases can evolve independently from the same family of enzymes to produce light using structurally different luciferins.

Concepts: Protein, Enzyme, Quorum sensing, Firefly, Bioluminescence, Luciferase, Luciferin, Omphalotus olearius


Bioluminescence relies on the oxidation of a luciferin substrate catalysed by a luciferase enzyme. Luciferins and luciferases are generic terms used to describe a large variety of substrates and enzymes. Whereas luciferins can be shared by phylogenetically distant organisms which feed on organisms producing them, luciferases have been thought to be lineage-specific enzymes. Numerous light emission systems would then have co-emerged independently along the tree of life resulting in a plethora of non-homologous luciferases. Here, we identify for the first time a candidate luciferase of a luminous echinoderm, the ophiuroid Amphiura filiformis Phylogenomic analyses identified the brittle star predicted luciferase as homologous to the luciferase of the sea pansy Renilla (Cnidaria), contradicting with the traditional viewpoint according to which luciferases would generally be of convergent origins. The similarity between the Renilla and Amphiura luciferases allowed us to detect the latter using anti-Renilla luciferase antibodies. Luciferase expression was specifically localized in the spines which were demonstrated to be the bioluminescent organs in vivo However, enzymes homologous to the Renilla luciferase but unable to trigger light emission were also identified in non-luminous echinoderms and metazoans. Our findings strongly indicate that those enzymes, belonging to the haloalkane dehalogenase family, might then have been convergently co-opted into luciferases in cnidarians and echinoderms. In these two benthic suspension-feeding species, similar ecological pressures would constitute strong selective forces for the functional shift of these enzymes and the emergence of bioluminescence.

Concepts: Enzyme, Light, Animal, Bioluminescence, Luciferase, Luciferin, Sea pansy, Sea pen


Bioluminescence imaging with luciferase enzymes and luciferin small molecules is a well-established technique for tracking cells and other biological features in rodent models. Despite its popularity, bioluminescence has long been hindered by a lack of distinguishable probes. Here we present a method to rapidly identify new substrate-selective luciferases for multicomponent imaging. Our strategy relies on parallel screening of luciferin analogues with panels of mutant enzymes. The compiled data set is then analyzed in silico to uncover mutually orthogonal sets. Using this approach, we screened 159 mutant enzymes with 12 luciferins. Thousands of orthogonal pairs were revealed with sufficient selectivity for use in biological environments. Over 100 pairs were validated in vitro, and three were applied in cell and animal models. The parallel screening method is both generalizable and scalable and will streamline the search for larger collections of orthogonal probes.

Concepts: Enzyme, Fungus, Model organism, In vitro, Firefly, Bioluminescence, Luciferase, Luciferin


Beetle luciferases elicit the emission of different bioluminescence colors from green to red. Whereas fireflies luciferases emit yellow-green light and are pH-sensitive, undergoing a typical red shift at acidic pH, higher temperatures and presence of divalent heavy metals, click beetle and railroadworm luciferases, emit a wider range of colors from green to red, but are pH-independent. Despite many decades of studies, the structural determinants and mechanisms of bioluminescence colors and pH-sensitivity remain enigmatic. Here, through modeling studies, site-directed mutagenesis spectral and kinetics studies using a set of recombinant luciferases naturally producing different bioluminescence colors (Macrolampis firefly; Phrixotrix hirtus railroadworm and Pyrearinus termitilluminans click beetle), we investigated the role of E311 and R337 in bioluminescence color determination. All mutants of these residues in firefly luciferase produced red-mutants, indicating that the preservation of charge and length of the side chains of E311 and R337 are essential to keep a salt bridge that stabilizes a closed hydrophobic conformation favorable for green light emission. Kinetic studies indicate that the residue R337 is important for binding luciferin, creating a positively charged environment around excited oxyluciferin phenolate. In Pyrearinus green-emitting luciferase, the mutation R334A causes a 40 nm red shift, whereas in Phrixotrix red-emitting luciferase the mutation L334R causes a blue-shift which is no longer affected by guanidine. These results indicate that the presence of arginine at position 334 is essential for blue-shifting the emission spectra of most beetle luciferases. Altogether, the results indicate that the residues E311 and R337 play both structural and catalytic roles in bioluminescence color determination, by stabilizing a closed hydrophobic conformation favorable for green light emission, and also providing a base to accept excited oxyluciferin phenol proton, and a countercation to stabilize excited phenolate, blue-shifting emission spectra in most beetle luciferases.

Concepts: Enzyme, Light, Color, Red, Firefly, Bioluminescence, Luciferase, Luciferin


New applications for bioluminescence imaging require an expanded set of luciferase enzymes and luciferin substrates. Here, we report two novel luciferins for use in vitro and in cells. These molecules comprise regioisomeric pyridone cores that can be accessed from a common synthetic route. The analogues exhibited unique emission spectra with firefly luciferase, although photon intensities remained weak. Enhanced light outputs were achieved by using mutant luciferase enzymes. One of the luciferin-luciferase pairs produced light on par with native probes in live cells. The pyridone analogues and complementary luciferases add to a growing set of designer probes for bioluminescence imaging.

Concepts: Enzyme, Photon, Quorum sensing, Firefly, Bioluminescence, Luciferase, Luciferin, Omphalotus olearius


An allylated firefly luciferin was successfully synthesized and its bioluminescence properties were evaluated. When applied to cellular imaging in combination with Eluc, which is one of the commercially available luciferases, this analogue displayed a luciferase-specific bioluminescence signal with prolonged emission (>100 min).

Concepts: Enzyme, Quorum sensing, Firefly, Bioluminescence, Luciferase, Luciferin, Coelenterazine, Photoprotein