Using Fireflies in Cancer Research

This magazine spread, intended for a popular science magazine such as Scientific American, was produced for a molecular visualization course in the Biomedical Communications program. The goal was to explain a biomolecular event and the relationship between the molecular structure and function. See below for work in progress.


General public


Prof. Derek Ng


Print (magazine)

11 x 17"


July 2018

Tools Used

Adobe Photoshop

Adobe Illustrator

Cinema 4D, Arnold


UCSF Chimera

Progress Work


I chose the use of luciferase in bioluminescence imaging as a topic because I was interested in how scientists are able to take advantage of nature's resources in the research lab. The 3D protein data of the different luciferase conformations was retrieved off of the PDB database. The data was first brought into UCSF Chimera for cleaning while referencing Uniprot information. The final 3D models were visualized in Cinema 4D.


With the help of Professor Ng, I experimented with different layouts and compositions to best explain my topic. I also narrowed down my focus to luciferase's use specifically in cancer research.

All 3D elements were rendered using Cinema 4D and Arnold; they were then edited in Adobe Photoshop. Finally, all of the illustration's elements were assembled together in Adobe Illustrator.

References: Branchini, B. R., Ablamsky, D. M., Davis, A. L., Southworth, T. L., Butler, B., Fan, F., … Pule, M. A. (2010). Red-emitting luciferases for bioluminescence reporter and imaging applications. Analytical Biochemistry, 396(2), 290–297. Branchini, B. R., Magyar, R. A., Murtiashaw, M. H., Anderson, S. M., Helgerson, L. C., & Zimmer, M. (1999). Site-directed mutagenesis of firefly luciferase active site amino acids: A proposed model for bioluminescence color. Biochemistry, 38(40), 13223–13230. Close, D. M., Xu, T., Sayler, G. S., & Ripp, S. (2011). In vivo bioluminescent imaging (BLI): Noninvasive visualization and interrogation of biological processes in living animals. Sensors, 11(1), 180–206. Conti, E., Franks, N. P., & Brick, P. (1996). Crystal structure of firefly luciferase throws light on a superfamily of adenylate-forming enzymes. Structure (London, England : 1993), 4(3), 287–298. Edinger, M., Cao, Y. A., Hornig, Y. S., Jenkins, D. E., Verneris, M. R., Bachmann, M. H., … Contag, C. H. (2002). Advancing animal models of neoplasia through in vivo bioluminescence imaging. European Journal of Cancer, 38(16), 2128–2136. Kim, J. E., Kalimuthu, S., & Ahn, B.-C. (2015). In vivo cell tracking with bioluminescence imaging. Nuclear Medicine and Molecular Imaging, 49(1), 3–10. Marques, S. M., & Esteves Da Silva, J. C. G. (2009). Firefly bioluminescence: A mechanistic approach of luciferase catalyzed reactions. IUBMB Life, 61(1), 6–17. Mezzanotte, L., van ‘t Root, M., Karatas, H., Goun, E. A., & Löwik, C. W. G. M. (2017). In Vivo Molecular Bioluminescence Imaging: New Tools and Applications. Trends in Biotechnology, 35(7), 640–652. Nakatsu, T., Ichiyama, S., Hiratake, J., Saldanha, A., Kobashi, N., Sakata, K., & Kato, H. (2006). Structural basis for the spectral difference in luciferase bioluminescence. Nature, 440(7082), 372–376. Sato, A., Klaunberg, B., & Tolwani, R. (2004). In Vivo Bioluminescence Imaging BLI : An Overview. Comparative Medicine, 54(6), 631–634. Sundlov, J. A., Fontaine, D. M., Southworth, T. L., Branchini, B. R., & Gulick, A. M. (2012). Crystal structure of firefly luciferase in a second catalytic conformation supports a domain alternation mechanism. Biochemistry, 51(33), 6493–6495. Thorne, N., Inglese, J., & Auld, D. S. (2010). Illuminating Insights into Firefly Luciferase and Other Bioluminescent Reporters Used in Chemical Biology. Chemistry & Biology, 17(6), 646–657. Xu, T., Close, D., Handagama, W., Marr, E., Sayler, G., & Ripp, S. (2016). The Expanding Toolbox of In Vivo Bioluminescent Imaging. Frontiers in Oncology, 6, 150.
Zinn, K. R., Chaudhuri, T. R., Szafran, A. A., O’Quinn, D., Weaver, C., Dugger, K., … Frank, S. J. (2008). Noninvasive bioluminescence imaging in small animals. ILAR Journal, 49(1), 103–115. Retrieved from


AMY CAO 2019