Glowing Coral Proteins Aid Medical Research

January 12, 2005

Tiny proteins that give coral reefs a mysterious glow may be key to keeping coral species alive, according to scientists. Those same proteins, they say, may also help blaze trails to new health cures.

Known as fluorescent protein, the molecules absorb light of one color and emit light of a different color. Scientists are uncertain as to why the proteins do this. But researchers believe the proteins may either help in the production of food or serve as a sunscreen.

Scientists say gaining a better understanding of the proteins' role may help prevent further reef destruction.

"Corals are some of the most endangered organisms on the Earth. There are thousands of different kinds of coral, and many are headed for near extinction," said Vincent Pieribone, an associate professor of cellular and molecular physiology and neurobiology at Yale University School of Medicine in New Haven, Connecticut.

Away from the oceans, the medical community is using fluorescent protein in the lab to monitor and study biological processes associated with AIDS, Alzheimer's disease, cancer, and a host of other diseases.

Researchers can attach the fluorescent molecules to a protein inside a dividing cancer cell or a spreading virus. Then, by shining a light of the appropriate color, scientists can watch as a cell divides or a virus spreads—processes they wouldn't be able to see without the special proteins.

Scientists say the proteins may one day illuminate intricacies of the human nervous system. "Our big goal is to put these [glowing proteins] in the brains of organisms and actually look at what the brain is doing," Pieribone said.

By watching how the brain works—observing what nerves are fired to command a certain action, such as lifting a foot—researchers may find a way to bypass spinal cord injuries, Pieribone said.

Many people with severed spinal cords can create muscle commands in their brains. But damage to nerve tissue prevents brain messages from reaching muscles.

The task for medical researchers is to devise a means to read these brain commands and transfer them to appropriate body tissues, perhaps through robotics.

"We're laying the groundwork to do that sort of thing," Pieribone said. "It could happen 30 or 40 years from now."

First, however, Pieribone and his colleagues are searching global coral reefs for new fluorescent proteins, ones that better shine through bones and muscle tissue.

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