Genetically Engineered Cell Is A Living Laser

A single cell genetically engineered to express green fluorescent protein (GFP) can amplify photons into nanosecond-long pulses of laser light. This advance was pioneered by researchers at the Wellman Center for Photomedicine at Massachusetts General Hospital.


(Single cell laser)

The investigators chose GFP for their exploration of those questions because the protein -- originally found in a species of jellyfish -- can be induced to emit light without the application of additional enzymes. Its properties are well understood, and there are established techniques to genetically program many organisms to express GFP.

Using that information, their next step was to develop a line of mammalian cells expressing GFP at the required levels. The cellular laser was assembled by placing a single GFP-expressing cell -- with a diameter of from 15 to 20 millionths of a meter -- in a microcavity consisting of two highly reflective mirrors spaced 20 millionths of a meter apart. Not only did the cell-based device produce pulses of laser light as in the GFP solution experiment, the researchers also found that the spherical shape of the cell itself acted as a lens, refocusing the light and inducing emission of laser light at lower energy levels than required for the solution-based device. The cells used in the device survived the lasing process and were able to continue producing hundreds of pulses of laser light.

"While the individual laser pulses last for only a few nanoseconds, they are bright enough to be readily detected and appear to carry very useful information that may give us new ways to analyze the properties of large numbers of cells almost instantaneously," says Yun, who is an associate professor of Dermatology at Harvard Medical School.

Fans of David Brin's novel Sundiver recall that one of the aliens is able to emit low power laser beams from his eyes.

"His eyes, damnit! Coumarin? His 'dietary supplement' is a dye used in lasers! He killed Dubrowsky when he tried to help me and Donaldson!

"He was lying about that laser plant back on his home planet! The Pring have their own source of coherent light!

Thanks to an anonymous reader for the tip and reference for this story. Via Science Daily.

Scroll down for more stories in the same category. (Story submitted 6/14/2011)

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