Luke Lavis

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

Vital Stats

Current Affiliation: Janelia Research Campus, Howard Hughes Medical Institute

Age: 38

Ph.D. alma mater: University of Wisconsin, Madison

Talent: Designing dyes to track molecules in living cells.

Scientific role model: Linus Pauling, a fellow Oregonian. “He really showcased how simple intuition can lead us on the right path to discover new things.”

Three Most Important Papers By Lavis:

“A General Method To Improve Fluorophores for Live-Cell And Single Molecule Microscopy” (Nat. Methods 2015, DOI: 10.1038/nmeth.3256)

“3-D Imaging Of Sox2 Enhancer Clusters in Embryonic Stem Cells” (eLife 2014, DOI: 10.7554/elife.04236.001)

“Synthesis of Rhodamines from Fluoresceins Using Pd-Catalyzed C–N Cross-Coupling” (Org. Lett. 2011, DOI: 10.1021/ol202618tu)

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).
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

Matt Kanan
Troy Lister
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