Scientists have combined light-emitting proteins from jellyfish with a solitary human cell to generate a unique first: a living, biological laser, according to a report published in the journal Nature Photonics.
“This is the first time that we have used biological components to build a laser and generate light from a thing that is living,” said Seok-Hyun Yun, an optical physicist at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, who came up with “living laser” with his colleague Malte Gather.
Lasers call for two elements: a material that amplifies light, called a “gain medium,” and an arrangement of mirrors to concentrate light waves directly into a beam. Gain mediums have ordinarily been crystals, semiconductors or gases. Yun and Gather turned instead to green fluorescent protein (GFP) — the substance that makes jellyfish bioluminescent.
The team engineered human embryonic kidney cells to produce GFP, then placed just one cell between two mirrors to create an optical cavity just 20 micrometres across. When they fed the cell pulses of blue light, it emitted a directional laser beam noticeable with the naked eye — and the cell itself wasn’t harmed at all, reported Nature.com.
The laser beam is tiny and weak compared with traditional lasers, the researchers reported, but still an order of magnitude brighter than purely natural jellyfish fluorescence, with a “beautiful green” color.
Yun and Gather have got big plans for living lasers. They suggest scientists might use them to study a specific cell in the body, turning it into a living laser to examine the cell’s structure. Or doctors could do precisely the same, turning on a laser inside a person’s body to treat a disease attacking cells.
Yun pictures a future where cells might “self lase” from within your body’s tissue.
“I have been working on cells and lasers for 4 decades, and I don’t assume I would have thought of this,” Michael Berns, a biomedical engineer at the University of California, Irvine, told Nature.com.
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