These slides use concepts from my (Jeff Funk) course entitled analyzing hi-tech opportunities to analyze how the economic feasibility of bioluminescence is becoming better through finding better sources of bioluminescence and reducing the cost of Luciferin & luciferase. Organisms displaying bioluminescence include fungi, algae, mushrooms, fireflies, glow worms, earth worms, and jelly fish, coral, to name a few. An astonishing 80-85% of the deep oceanic world is bioluminescent and some of this can even be seen from outer space! Bioluminescence primarily occurs when chemical Luciferin reacts with oxygen in the presence of catalyst luciferase.
There are some exciting things about bioluminescence. First, it is possible to achieve it even with a coating as thin as 1mm as it works at microbial level. This would further reduce the size of lights far beyond what is possible with LEDs and OLEDs. Second, it is theoretically possible to grow trees and plants that are bioluminescent and thus use them for lighting streets and other outdoor areas. Clearly this would be tremendous success and have a large impact on the world’s energy needs in addition to possibly improving the aesthetics of cities.
More immediate applications can be found in disease detection where Bioluminescence is already being used. Specific cells, viral agents, or genes can be bioluminescently labeled. After injecting them into an organism, cameras and spectral analysis can be used to detect their movement and multiplication. This can be potentially much cheaper than MRI, computer tomography and other approaches; the challenge is to create the different bio-luminescent materials(synthetic Luciferin), their spectral signatures, and methods of injection.
A final challenge that is common to all bio-luminescent applications is the cost of the biological material, which is usually Luciferin. Extracting it from fireflies can cost tens of thousands of dollars for few milliliter, clearly a very high cost. However, synthetic methods of production have been devised and scaling up these production plants will likely lead to much lower costs. Given the experience in the chemical industry it is likely that in future with advances in technology the costs may fall more than a thousand times as the production processes are scaled up to the levels found in high-volume chemicals.