Building a gene... and making it glow

Van Gooch, a biologist at the University of Minnesota, Morris, has been studying circadian rhythms through a fungus called Neurospora. Part of Neurospora’s daily cycle involves forming spores. To understand how this fits in to Neurospora’s circadian rhythm, Gooch needed to know exactly when the genes for growing new spores turned on. To figure this out, he did something that might seem a little strange: he inserted firefly genes into the Neurospora fungus.

As weird as it might sound, putting the genes that make fireflies glow into other species is kind of an old trick in genetics—if the firefly gene, called luciferase, can be associated with another gene, it will glow when the other gene becomes active.

Unfortunately, when Gooch inserted the luciferase gene into the fungus, it didn’t glow like it should have. So Van Gooch and his fellow researchers took it a step further: they rebuilt the gene from scratch to make it brighter. When the new, optimized luciferase gene was inserted into his neurospora… the fungus glowed, so much so that it could be seen with the naked eye in the dark.

With the new gene, and the newly glowing fungus, Gooch could observe precise markers on Neurospora’s internal clock, moments on the biological stopwatch that can help us understand how circadian rhythms work in all organisms.

Do you have questions about circadian rhythms? Wondering how scientists can make a gene and insert it into an organism? Leave your questions for Van Gooch, and keep your eye on for an answer!

A bowl of Neurospora fungus glows in a dark lab with the help of synthesized firefly genes.

Click here to watch a video of the genetically engineered fungus growing in a dark laboratory.

Click here to see the scientific paper on the glowing Neurospora that Gooch and his collaborators produced.

Photo courtesy Van Gooch