Ecology on the Thames
The United States Patent and Trademark Office has issued Connecticut College its first patent in the college's 100-year history. U.S. Patent No. 7,807,429 was issued for an enhanced version of an Italian firefly's light emitting protein, engineered by Bruce Branchini, Connecticut College's Hans and Ella McCollum '21 Vahlteich Professor of Chemistry, and his research team. The college has also been issued a European patent (No. 2 002 007 B1) based on the U.S. patent.
"This patent is an exciting recognition of the scientific research and discovery that takes place at Connecticut College," Dean of the Faculty Roger Brooks said. "Professor Branchini and his Bioluminescence Research Group have made a number of important discoveries that will have broad implications in medicine, military technology and a number of other important fields."
Working with colleagues from the University of Bologna in Italy, Branchini and his research group, which includes a number of undergraduate students each year, were able to isolate the gene for the enzyme that allows light to be emitted by the Italian firefly Luciola Italica. After cloning the gene for the enzyme and determining its DNA sequence, they were able to create genetic variances of the enzyme to stabilize it and change its color from yellow-green to an orange-red. The project received funding from the National Science Foundation, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR) and the Hans and Ella McCollum '21 Vahlteich Endowment.
The engineered firefly protein is useful in a variety of applications, including drug screening, in vivo imaging, biosensors for pollutants or diseases, anti-tampering devices, or devices that can provide illumination without heat, spark or flame. Branchini, a member of the Connecticut College faculty since 1986, is an expert on the biochemistry of bioluminescence, or the emission of light by living organisms. As director of the college's Bioluminescence Research Group, Branchini has mentored and overseen the research activities of more than 85 undergraduate students, including Jennifer P. DeAngelis '06, who coauthored a paper on the Italian firefly enzyme and whose name also appears on the patent. The group is recognized world-wide as a leader in the field of bioluminescence.
"We've done a lot of research in this field, and I'm very pleased with the way our work has been received," Branchini said. "It's a topic that has interested me for 35 years, and with the exciting discoveries we make every year, it continues to be a topic that is interesting and relevant to our undergraduates."
With funding from the National Science Foundation and AFOSR, Branchini and his team are currently working to manipulate light-emitting enzymes from a North American firefly to emit infrared light, which can't be seen with the naked eye.
"This is the kind of light that makes remote controls work and the kind you can see with night vision goggles," Branchini said. In addition to research, Branchini teaches courses in biochemistry and organic chemistry, including spectroscopic methods.