The most promising applications of bioluminescence are in the medical field. The high detectability and rapidity of bioluminescence provides the ability to continuously monitor biological processes such as gene expression and disease progression. Bioluminescence imaging (BLI) has emerged as a powerful new method to analyze infectious diseases in a non-invasive way and its application has increased tremendously in the past decade. It has contributed significantly to advances in biomedical research in the fields of immunology, oncology, virology, and neuroscience.
Luciferase systems are widely used in the field of genetic engineering as reporter genes. Genetic reporter systems have contributed greatly to the study of eukaryotic gene expression and regulation. Reporter genes are most frequently used as indicators of transcriptional activity in cells. Typically, a reporter gene is joined to a promoter sequence in an expression vector that is transferred into cells. Following the transfer, cells are assayed for the presence of the reporter by directly measuring the reporter protein itself or the enzymatic activity of the reporter protein.
Bacterial bioluminescence can be used to test for a specific bacterial species or possible food- borne pathogens such as salmonella. The lux gene, responsible for bacterial bioluminescence, has been isolated and cloned. The cloned lux gene can be injected into a host-specific phage, which does not have the ability to express the gene. If the phage infects a host bacterium, light emission results. Water quality is tested by employing the bioluminescent marine bacteria Vibrio fischeri. When this organism is challenged by a toxin, the respiration pathway is disrupted, resulting in a decrease in bioluminescent intensity.
Scientists are researching other “fun” and practical applications of bioluminescence. Some proposed applications of engineered bioluminescence include glowing trees to line highways to save government electricity bills, Christmas trees that do not need lights, thereby reducing danger from electrical fires, and agricultural crops and domestic plants that luminesce when they need watering.