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Silicon Valley among the first to see bioluminescent light

By Christa Fraser

A CRUISE DOWN the Las Vegas strip proves that there are plenty of ways to make things glow. But incandescent light will not be on center stage forever. It's the lounge lights that emanate from sea creatures such as jellyfish that are changing technology and the products we use, starting right here in Silicon Valley.

Abe Couse, a product manager at BD Biosciences Clontech in Palo Alto, recalls that Clontech was the first company to experiment with the commercial possibilities of green fluorescent protein (GFP), back in 1994--eons ago in biotech time. "The potential spinoff uses would have been hard to predict when the first photoprotein was discovered," Couse says.

Clontech now uses GFP for genetic and drug research and development, an area many companies see as a promising arena. Using strains of GFP (that have sometimes been manipulated to emit red, blue and yellow lights as well as the traditional green), Couse believes that drug screening, development and research will be the most practical applications of glow-technology in the future.

Indeed, some of the uses under development in the industry include tagging tumor cells, which scatter easily. If each piece can be marked and identified, a surgeon can potentially cut out every piece of malignant tissue without guessing. Also in the works are so-called gene tags for genetic research and testing, and diagnostic equipment for hospitals that will give an immediate assessment of natural systems in real time. And in terms of anti-aging and wellness products, Luciferin (an energy-rich molecule necessary for bioluminescence) is thought to be four times more efficient than vitamin E at absorbing free radicals in organs.

While the world waits for the mechanisms to detect and cure diseases like cancer, Parkinson's and cystic fibrosis, here are some other potential applications that may light up our daily lives:

* Questions about some kinds of food contamination may soon be answerable immediately. Is there E. coli in that burger? Just insert a special sensor--if the double-decker glows blue next to the spot marked E. coli, it can be sent back. In the future, waiting for the results of a test may take minutes instead of days.

* Environmental testing: Bugs could be engineered to glow in the presence of toxic chemicals.

* Bacterial and viral testing on a microchip: Chips could be designed with antibodies for specific bacteria and viruses. Once the contaminated source touches the antibody on the chip, that part of the chip will light up.

* Fighting against germ warfare. Anthrax scares and others like them will be easier to manage. A light would go off immediately in the presence of a biological weapon.

* Contraceptives that can test for the presence of sexually transmitted diseases like HIV and Herpes.

In the consumer market, the possibilities of organically lit space-age toys seem endless. Companies like Universal Display Corporation, headquartered in Ewing, N.J., are working on inexpensive organic lasers, motorcycle helmets that give data such as speed and position, bulbless lighting systems for the home and automobile, sunglasses and goggles with computer screens built into the lenses.

Other products being researched include: roll-up or fold-up newspapers and magazines smaller than a cigarette case, organic microchips (two halves of DNA create an electrical circuit), flexible and foldable computer and television screens, bioluminescent cosmetics, glowing food (such as drinks and birthday cake frosting), flowers and plants that glow, fishing lures that light up and glowing contraceptives.

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From the June 6-12, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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