How does bioluminescence work, and can we genetically modify a certain animal (or ourselves) to have it?


How does bioluminescence work, and can we genetically modify a certain animal (or ourselves) to have it?

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There are different ways of achieving bioluminescence. It is a trait which evolved multiple times in different ways. A common way is to have enzymes create one of a number of compounds called luciferin. These chemicals will react with oxygen to produce light. There are many different variants of this, for example the one used by fireflies also require ATP, commonly used in the cell as a form of energy, and will produce a much brighter light then other luciferins.

Because it is so visually distinct and require relatively few enzymes to do it is one of the most common genetic modification experiments conducted. Both at low levels such as in high schools but also with researchers who add the bioluminescense proteins as a way to confirm their experiments worked. So we have lots of genetically modified bacteria and fungi with bioluminescense and even a number of higher order animals like frogs and fish.

As for humans this have not been attempted. There are few experiments in genetics modifications in humans for ethical reasons. But there are some quite successfull experiments injecting mRNA into human cells. The coronavirus vaccine is the most famous expample of this but there have been others for example injecting the mRNA to produce lactase in order to cure lactose intolerance. This technique does not modify the human DNA at all and any therapy needs to be repeated every few months.

And technically you would be able to inject mRNA to produce luciferin in order to make humans bioluminesce. There are however two issues with this. Since these proteins are not of human origin (lactase is) the immune system will recognize it as foreign and start attack the cells with the mRNA in it. So you are not talking months but rather days and it might have side effects like any other immune system reaction. And secondly humans are not transparent so it would not be possible to see the bioluminescense. The only thing visible is the outer layer of skin which is dead and therefore incapable of making luciferin. So bioluminescent humans would not be spectacular.

Where something like this might be useful is in cancer treatment. The hard part is to get the cancer to be bioluminescent but not the rest of the tissue. This is very hard since the cancer cells share the same genes as normal cells, they just behave slightly different. But there are research into this as well. So if we can make the cancer bioluminescent it will help surgeons a lot when amputating cancerous tissue. Currently they have to make a best guess as to which tissue is cancerous and which is not. But if we can color the cancer and even make it glow then it is easier to see what tissue is not part of the cancer and if anything remains of the cancer that needs to be cut out.