Green lasers, jellyfish and kidney on blue light special

Researchers at a Massachusetts hospital have manipulated a living cell to produce a laser light. That could pave the way to exploiting the fact that such a technique could produce continuously refreshed light.

The breakthrough came from Malte Gather and Seok Hyuan who work at Massachusetts General Hospital’s Wellman Center for Photomedicine. They built their research around the way normal lasers require a solid, non-living material such as a crystal as a gain medium, the substance that houses the optical amplification that produces the laser light.

To achieve this in a biological manner, the pair instead used green fluorescent protein as the gain medium. The protein was originally found in the Aequorea victoria jellyfish (pictured), but in this case was produced through genetic modification of cells derived from the human kidney.

Individual cells were placed between mirrors that were 50 nanometers across, meaning it would take 20 million in a line to make a meter. Exposing the cell to blue light resulted in the production of a green laser light.

The test showed that not only did the cells survive the process, but if any of the proteins were destroyed, the cell would be able to produce replacements.

Sadly it doesn’t appear the next step is to replace part of the torso with a transparent tube to expose the kidney so that we can all walk round with built-in flashlights. But the research may have medical benefits.

For example, it may make it easier to track the interaction of individual cells. It could mean human tissue could be its own light source for some forms of imaging. And there’s even an outlandish theory it could allow people to communicate via light flashes from brain tissue.