I have come across some species of living organisms who are able to emit light at whim. Can that ability be incorporated into a portion of human skin (a specialized tissue)?


3 Answers 3


Genetic modification of any cell to overexpress a fluorescent protein will not 'generate' light, per-say: fluorophores absorb particular wavelengths and re-emit in less energetic wavelengths, dispersing some energy as heat. (Perhaps there is some semantic choice here, but there is no transduction to light from another form of energy.)

Bio-luminescence, on the other hand, can be considered generation of light. There are proteins commonly found in marine animals (which skin cells could be engineered to express) which convert chemical energy to emit light.

With regards to generation of electricity, I think this gets a bit interesting...

The electron transport chain (ETC) in the inner membranes of our mitochondria carry out a series of redox reactions which serve to oxidise food metabolites (thus freeing electrons). In order to maintain the free energy gradient that favours this directional cascade of reactions, electrons and protons are finally accepted by a continual supply of oxygen atoms, producing water. (You may be aware that aerobic respiration consumes oxygen and produces water.) In nature (in aerobes), oxygen acts as the final electron acceptor, or an electron sink.

Bacteria also have electron transport chains for their respiration (mitochondria were once bacteria, after all), and people have wondered whether these redox reactions could be used to produce a current instead of reducing oxygen to water as the final step. We normally use current in the form of electrons moving along a metal wire.

This is the idea of a "microbial fuel cell". Just like a battery produces a current from a chemical redox reaction, the ETC might be recruited in to producing a current from its chemical redox reactions.

I think this is a very difficult piece of bioengineering, since the ETC is integrated in to respiration and needs to be de- & re-coupled to some kind of inorganic mediator and ultimately a circuit; and also because the ETC produces very low voltages, I think.

There is a nice wikipedia page on microbial fuel cells that you might find interesting, if you think this is relevant to your question.

  • $\begingroup$ I understand your point from this answer all right.But please add a para explicitly stating "Is it possible for humans to generate electricity and light from skin tissues and natural energy, similar to that of those animals by any means, using current state-of-the-art knowledge about Biology?" $\endgroup$ Feb 19, 2015 at 20:44
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    $\begingroup$ The part about using luciferase to produce light is only a partial answer. Expressing the luciferase is the easy part. Producing enough luciferin to actually make visible light would be very hard, since the luciferin biosynthesis pathway isn't fully understood yet, and is pretty energy intensive. Trying to regulate the lighting would be very hard, so even if you could get sufficient luciferin production, don't plan on turning it off, or flashing it, or anything complex. $\endgroup$
    – user137
    Feb 19, 2015 at 23:58
  • $\begingroup$ a.aniq, your question needs a lot of work, in my opinion; it's not clear what you really want to know. Are you really asking: "Can I have skin like a fire-fly, or an electric-eel?". The answer is no, for the reason Kendall gives - these organisms have quite extensive physiological adaptations in order to luminesce or produce electric shocks, tissues very unlike human skin. My answer was instead about transducing energy and the idea of a microbial fuel cell, as I wasn't sure what you were asking, and since these small steps are more realistic. $\endgroup$
    – Teige
    Feb 24, 2015 at 14:43

Sort of problematic is the "at a whim" part. Just a brief search to wikipedia on electric organs, here, we see that the electrocytes are controlled by a nucleus of pacemaker neurons. This is all unique to electric fish, and you'd have to express that whole system in a human being to elicit the same effect. You'd also have to consider how your organism is engineered to withstand the actual electric shock emitted by the electric organ.

We can already tag molecules with luciferase to emit light as a mode of bio-luminescence. To get an appreciable reaction, or rather an appreciably bright light, I can imagine we'd need a ridiculous amount of luciferin in vivo, though. We also get stuck at the part about it being on a whim. The control mechanisms/structures for the light-emitting reaction simply aren't present.

  • $\begingroup$ As noted above, the problem with bioluminescence is not in producing luciferase in vivo - I have a mammalian plasmid in my lab that can do that. The issue is producing and trafficking luciferin (luciferase's substrate). $\endgroup$
    – MattDMo
    Feb 20, 2015 at 19:48

Yes, the fibroblasts of skin cells can quite easily be Transfected with a fluorescent gene such as GFP. Fluorescence doesn't actually produce light, the fluorescent molecule just changes the wavelength of light shining on it.

Fibroblasts can also be made luminescent (light producing) by acquiring genes for firefly luciferase or aquoren from jellyfish. This is a little more tricky since luminescent molecules typically require cofactors such as ATP, Calcium or other proteins.

Both methodologies are readily performed in vitro.

  • $\begingroup$ And what about electricity? $\endgroup$ Feb 19, 2015 at 12:45
  • $\begingroup$ That's a much more complicated physiology based on tissue arrangement. Although I'm not 100% on this I think introducing a phenotype like that into a transgenic animals at this point is still science-fiction $\endgroup$
    – rhill45
    Feb 19, 2015 at 14:11
  • $\begingroup$ I don't know if what you are saying is possible or not. I'll wait for somebody to comment on this answer, before thinking on it. $\endgroup$ Feb 19, 2015 at 16:09

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