The future looks bright for the life sciences, thanks to a colorful new array of fluorescent dyes. Researchers in Luke Lavis’s lab at Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Research Campus have developed rhodamine dyes that let biologists light up single molecules and cells in live animals–in almost any color they want.
“I think the ability to look at individual molecules has revolutionized cell biology,” says Lavis, a senior group leader and Head of Molecular Tools and Imaging at Janelia.
In addition to vastly expanding the palette of colors for visualizing cells and molecules, Janelia Fluor dyes are up to 50 times brighter than current alternatives and more stable when exposed to light.
Since 1887, chemists have made rhodamines by boiling their ingredients in sulfuric acid. That trial-and-error process yielded a narrow range of colors since scientists could only use molecules that could withstand a hot acid bath.
Lavis’s group thought rhodamines had more potential. So, in 2011, they tried to make them using modern drug discovery techniques, inspired by lab member Jonathan Grimm’s experience in the pharmaceutical industry.
To engineer Janelia Fluor dyes, the lab now uses the metal palladium as a catalyst and keeps acid out of the process. That lets the researchers attach more types of molecules to the rhodopsin to produce a wider spectrum of colors. It also gives them more control over the dyes’ properties because the researchers understand the dyes’ operating rules well enough to fine-tune them.
The work was tricky and unlikely to be funded in almost any other research setting, says Grimm. But Janelia gave them the leeway to try.
“We basically have the same setup that I had at Merck,” says Grimm. “It’s industry-level resources, but with ultimate academic freedom.”
New Research Area Competition
HHMI is hosting an open, international competition to decide Janelia’s next research area. If you have a big idea that addresses a major unsolved problem in the life sciences, submit a proposal.