The Fluorescence Phenom
Molecular designer dreams up dyes that let researchers map molecules inside cells
As a student, Luke D. Lavis was seduced by the beauty and logic of organic chemistry. But his four years in industry before graduate school convinced him that when it comes to job satisfaction, happy customers win out over elegant syntheses. Now he designs and makes complex molecular probes—tools without which biologists couldn’t peer inside cells and neurons.
“You know when your compounds are working. If people are willing to part with their money or time to test them, that’s when you’ve got something interesting,” Lavis says.
Lavis designs fluorescent dyes that allow researchers to watch, in real time, how biochemicals flow into and behave in live cells. Tagged molecules, such as proteins, can be programmed to glow in the presence of light, enzymes, or other environmental changes. His colleagues at the Janelia Research Campus of Howard Hughes Medical Institute rely on his work to make groundbreaking discoveries.
“I sometimes call Luke our secret weapon here,” says Eric Betzig, a coworker and 2014 Chemistry Nobel Prize recipient. “Every advance I’ve made in my career has been due to fluorescent probes.” Betzig explains that his work developing superresolution microscopy requires dyes that are incredibly bright, long lasting, and available in multiple colors.
Other happy customers include scientists at the roughly 30 Janelia labs in the Transcription Imaging Consortium. Lavis’s dyes let researchers observe the intricate activity of transcription factors, proteins that control gene expression in various cells by translating DNA into RNA. Until now, it has not been possible to observe transcription factors in action—they find their target then disperse in a fraction of a second. — Melody M. Bomgardner
Research At A Glance
Cell biologists would like to track the movement of individual molecules inside living cells using fluorescence microscopy. At Janelia Research Campus, Lavis designs innovative dyes that bind to specific molecules in cells. Two such dyes are shown here; one is bound inside a cell to a transcription factor (TetR, blue), and the other is bound to a histone protein (red).
Credit:Brian English, Luke Lavis & Jiji Chen/Janelia Research Campus/HHMI