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Serial Essays ~Traveling the "Open Seas" of Life Science with Bioluminescence~

Traveling the "Open Seas" of Life Science with Bioluminescence

Posted 2014.12.16

Yoshihiro Ohmiya, Ph.D.
Part 10 My journey in search of "ELuc" luciferase
- Prague -
Yoshihiro Ohmiya, Ph.D.
The National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST)
The city of Prague still has a distinct medieval feel to it, with a hint of danger in the air. Although I didn't experience any danger there firsthand, several Japanese whom I've attended conferences with were victims of robbery in Prague. I did get robbed when I visited Belgium however. Fortunately, a kind Belgian citizen who happened to be nearby helped me out, and filed a damage report with the local police. Eventually, I was taken back to my hotel in a patrol car. I still remember clearly that, when I explained the incident to the head police officer, he told me I was the victim of a classic robbery technique.

Although I was never robbed in Prague, I did have some unsettling experiences there, and found myself getting lost on the streets. Roads in the city of Prague are rarely straight, making it difficult to see in front of you (see photos). And many of the buildings look very similar. One night, I wasn't able to find my way back to the hotel after drinking at a pub. After walking awhile, the next thing I knew I was back where I started. I remember feeling uncertain about what caused this, whether it was the map I had was inaccurate, or the beer was so good that I drank too much and got confused. Either way, it was a sobering experience for me getting lost out in the rain.

The reason I visited Prague was to attend the 9th World Congress on Alternatives and Animal Use in the Life Sciences (WC9). I announced a method we developed for evaluating immunotoxicity in chemical substances using cells infused with luciferase genes of two different colors. I also announced that, by fusing our technique with an artificial chromosome technique developed by Tottori University's Professor Oshimura (see photo), we were able to establish stable evaluation cells. This fusion in particular was the first of its kind in the world, and a new breakthrough.

I'm about to get a little technical here. By repeatedly cultivating a stable stock of evaluation cells created with a simple gene transfer, foreign genes inserted into the cells will experience an epigenetic effect, changing their abilities. However, when using artificial chromosomes to create evaluation cells, and inserting a cluster of luciferase genes to act as reporters, there is not much epigenetic influence, with the evaluation cells showing the same results no matter how many times they are cultivated. This acts as a remarkably stable, cell-based evaluation system that can replace experimental animals.

Even though these original, cutting-edge research results from Japan could completely transform the world of toxicity evaluation, they weren't given much attention at the conference. Part of this is due to a lack of publicity, but ignoring such data seems to be a common trait of the conference itself. This may be a rude way of putting it, but while research for finding different types of pharmaceutical products is moving forward, research of toxicity in chemical substances seems to be going backwards. Basically, the world of toxicity evaluation is completely controlled by developed countries through the OECD, where no-risk cooperative techniques between the United States and Europe are highly valued. Because of this, Japan's pioneering and advanced technologies seem to be isolated.

To change the subject, you might be wondering why it is so easy to get lost in the city of Prague. This city holds an important position in East Europe, and has been at the forefront of many battles. Because of this, I believe it was built as a city that is easy to defend, and hard to attack, while people like myself end up getting easily lost. Yet some visitors to Prague never get lost, because they use a mobile navigation system to find their destination. Man-made satellites are an amazing feat. Innovation may be a combination of things which seem unrelated at first glance. In the same way, a combination of our luminescence technique with the artificial chromosome technique should be recognized as a significant innovation.
  • The streets of Prague make it hard 
to see what's up ahead.
    The streets of Prague make it hard
    to see what's up ahead.


  • A photo of Professor Oshimura and 
Ms. Mori from Doshisha University 
in the conference building.
    A photo of Professor Oshimura and
    Ms. Mori from Doshisha University
    in the conference building.
About the Author
Yoshihiro Ohmiya was born in 1960 in Hakodate City, Hokkaido, Japan. In 1990, he received a degree from Gunma University Graduate School of Medicine. After carrying out his post-doctoral work among other studies, he became an associate professor at Shizuoka University's Faculty of Education in 1996, was appointed head of a research group at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST) in 2001, and was appointed professor of the department of Photobiology at Hokkaido University Graduate School of Medicine in October 2006. In 2009, he returned to AIST as head researcher, and has been a research director at the AIST Biomedical Research Institute since 2012. His research in bioluminescence spans from the basics to practical application, touching on various fields such as biology, chemistry, physics, genetic engineering, and cellular engineering. Yet his true passion still lies in bioluminescence-related fieldwork, in which he annually collects specimens from various mountainous regions and oceans throughout the world. He is especially partial to China's Yunnan Province, New Zealand, and Brazil.
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