- Associated Press - Monday, January 30, 2017

AUBURN, Ala. (AP) - Whether they’re lightning bugs or floating ocean blobs, living things that make their own light are fascinating.

But scientists say if we understood how these living light bulbs work, there’s more we could do with them than just say, “Wow.” There are some things we might “undo,” too.

Picture a glowing cell moving through a human body to track infection. Or a bio-switch to turn off natural luminescence when it runs wild leading to a red tide that kills fish and makes people sick.

Dr. Steve Mansoorabadi of Auburn University is studying this natural light process with a prestigious $703,000 CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation. His work is an example of modern science in Alabama today.

Specifically, Mansoorabadi and his students are studying dinoflagellates. They’re a kind of ocean microorganism with a light-producing enzyme called luciferase. It causes photosynthesis during the day and glowing at night. It can also run wild creating toxins that cause red tides.

Why do these organisms glow? Mansoorabadi said scientists have a “burglar alarm hypothesis.” The light comes on to attract predators in the dark waters where they grow. Not predators to eat them. Predators to eat the shrimp that eat them.

“The pathway (that creates the light) is important to their survival,” he said.

At Auburn, Mansoorabadi and his students grow these microorganisms and study the enzyme that produces their light and the pathway it uses to do it. Understanding that pathway - being able to turn the light both on and off - could stop red tides and put glowing cells to more productive work.

“Maybe you can design an inhibitor and use that as a remediator to stop red tides,” Mansoorabadi said.

“These types of enzymes are (also) very useful for cell imaging,” Mansoorabadi said. “Think of ‘reporter’ genes for studying cell functioning. If you can figure out how to make (it), you can maybe apply it to all kinds of applications.”

Red tides happen when there’s an algae bloom in the water. A variety of things can cause them including agricultural runoff, and they poison shellfish, kill other fish and make humans sick.

“My sense is that it has been increasing,” Mansoorabadi said of these tides. “Not only red tides, there’s also green tides. They’re bacteria growing out of control.”

Mansoorabadi is also working with other molecules in the same biological class. Some can take carbon dioxide and produce methane. The same enzyme that can produce the methane can also “eat it,” he said.

“It wasn’t known how to produce this pathway,” Mansoorabadi said, “but there’s a lot of interest now in producing natural gas and converting into something companies can use. Maybe convert it into a liquid fuel.”

Masoorabadi got his doctorate at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and did his postdoctoral study at the University of Texas in Austin. He likes what he’s found at Auburn.

“There’s a lot of really good science going on in Alabama, at Auburn in particular,” he said. “There’s a young, growing chemistry department with a lot of good research going on.”

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