Publication Date


Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation

Academic Program

Biochemistry and Molecular Pharmacology


Biochemistry and Molecular Pharmacology

First Thesis Advisor

Stephen C. Miller, PhD


Fireflies, Luciferases, Luminescent Proteins, Benzothiazoles


Dissertations, UMMS; Fireflies; Luciferases; Luminescent Proteins; Benzothiazoles


Fireflies are beetles that generate yellow-green light when their luciferase enzyme activates and oxidizes its substrate, D-luciferin. This bioluminescent reaction is widely used as a sensitive reporter both in vitro and in vivo. However, the light-emitting chemistry is limited by the properties of the small molecule D-luciferin. Our lab has developed a panel of synthetic luciferin analogs that improve on the inherent characteristics of D-luciferin. My thesis work focuses on harnessing these novel substrates to further expand the utility and molecular understanding of firefly bioluminescence.

The first part of my thesis focuses on using synthetic luciferins to improve bioluminescence imaging beyond what is possible with D-luciferin. Our substrates emit red-shifted light compared to D-luciferin, bringing the wavelength to a range that is more able to penetrate through tissue, but at a cost of lower signal intensity. I developed mutant luciferases that increase the maximal photon flux with the synthetic luciferins over what is achievable with the wild-type luciferase, and furthermore discriminate between substrates based on their chemical structures. Additionally, I have expanded the bioluminescence toolkit by harnessing the intrinsic properties of the luciferins to non-invasively and specifically assay the activity of a single enzyme (fatty acid amide hydrolase) in live mice. Therefore, my work presents an effective way to generally improve upon bioluminescent reporters, but also to measure the activity of a specific enzyme of interest in the context of a living organism.

The second part of my thesis employs synthetic luciferins to more deeply probe the light-emitting chemistry of bioluminescence. Our synthetic substrates reveal latent luciferase activity from multiple luciferase homologs that are inactive with D-luciferin. These enzymes, the fatty acyl-CoA synthetases, are predicted to be luciferase’s evolutionary predecessors, but it was not clear how the light emitting chemistry originated. My work shows that the luciferase must activate the luciferin and provide oxygen access, but the light emitting chemistry is a fundamental property of that activated intermediate. In summary, the work described herein not only expands our understanding of firefly bioluminescence, but also broadens its practical applications to shine bioluminescent light on the dark corners of biology.



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