Scintillon team to play key role in center for creating bioluminescent neuroscience tools

01 August 2017


Scintillon team to play key role in center for creating bioluminescent neuroscience tools

San Diego, CA

In a new collaboration, scientists will advance and freely circulate a research technology that makes brain cells able to produce, respond to, and communicate with light.

Nathan Shaner, Ph.D. will lead Scintillon Institute’s contribution to a national center dedicated to developing and disseminating new tools based on bioluminescence. The five-year grant from the National Science Foundation aims to develop tools to give nervous system cells the ability to make and respond to light. Neuroscientists can use these tools to manipulate and observe the circuitry of the brain in a variety of model organisms.


“NeuroNex Technology Hub” is a new collaboration of labs at Brown University, Central Michigan University and the Scintillon Institute. The team will improve upon and combine several unique bioengineering technologies to create new research capabilities, rooted in bioluminescence-the natural ability of cells to make light. They will then make their advances rapidly, easily, and freely available to the global scientific community.  


Shaner joins co-principal investigators Diane Lipscombe, Brown professor of neuroscience and director of the Brown Institute for Brain Science, and Ute Hochgeschwender, professor at CMU, on a team led by Christopher Moore, a professor of neuroscience at Brown. Justine Allen, a Brown neuroscience PhD alumna, will be the center’s administrative director.


Creating a curriculum, which combines elements of biology, chemistry, physics and engineering, to engage and educate high school students will be a key facet of the center’s mission.


“The highly visual nature of this research is a great way to get young people interested in science,” said Shaner. “Being able to see living neurons lighting up as they fire under a microscope can be a transformative experience for them.”

Bright brains


Shaner and Hochgeschwender have been working together for three years on improving the brightness of bioluminescent light generation in cells, while Moore, Lipscombe and Hochgeschwender have been working together to engineer bioluminescence into a variety of cells, including neurons. Their work includes making light production contingent on an influx of calcium, a typical means that neurons employ to trigger each other into action. In the new project, they will continue to work to create even brighter calcium-modulated bioluminescence in neurons


The team combines this engineered bioluminescence with optogenetics, a decade-old technology in which distinct types of neurons can be genetically altered to turn on and off in response to light. Currently, optogenetics requires scientists to inject light into the brain of an animal via fiber optics at times and places they hope are appropriate for their work. But “when bioluminescence and optogenetics are combined, cells can illuminate themselves, removing the need for invasive optical fibers implanted in the brain,” said Shaner.


The research group also plans to create new imaging tools. Using a variety of fluorescent molecules, many of which Shaner helped pioneer, scientists today can make different components of cells glow under a microscope to visualize them by shining an “excitation” light on them that can damage the tissue and add visual noise when the incoming light scatters in the tissue. Bioluminescence allows cells to glow on cue without external stimulation, reducing the possibility of damage and light scattering.  Less bulky implanted imaging devices that require less power could be developed if they don’t have to deliver excitation light.

Minds Bright


New tools and techniques will be disseminated by the team through several means. They will produce a comprehensive website with downloadable experimental protocols, genetic sequences, and other documentation as well as send out “emissaries” to teach other research groups. Annually, they will hold workshops for visiting scientists to come together, generate and discuss ideas, form new collaborations, and learn how to use the new technologies.


In addition to teaching other scientists, the collaboration will also develop curricula for educational outreach at multiple levels. They plan to hold a weeklong “intensive practicum” course for undergraduate and graduate students every spring at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, MA, to which they particularly encourage applications from students underrepresented in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) disciplines. In additionto participating in the annual month-long SURE summer program for high school students at Scintillon, Shaner will also host one high school and one college student for three months each summer, giving them an intensive first-hand experience with lab research and a chance to contribute to the overall goals of the project.



Rhianna Basore

858-799-1065 Outreach Coordinator

Scintillon Institute

6868 Nancy Ridge Drive San Diego CA 92121

[email protected]


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Scintillon Institute founded in 2012 as an independent non-profit science research institute with the goal of discovering and developing new biologically based technologies that address the fundamental needs of a growing civilization. Research projects include novel tools for biological imaging, new perspectives on aging and neurodegenerative disease research as well as innovative approaches to developing sustainable energy and food sources. Focused on catalyzing key advances in biological research, it seeks to contribute broadly to improving public health, treating disease, and producing sustainable energy and food for our growing world population.



Scintillon Institute…….Illuminating the Path from Discovery to Cure