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Living, biological raygun produced in lab

Glowing mammal-jellyfish chimera-blob emits laser beam

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Beings or creatures able to emit beams of focused energy from their own living bodies: fiction, right? Comic-book, X Men stuff, right?

Wrong. Boffins in America have announced that they have successfully produced laser light from living cells under laboratory conditions, paving the way - they say - for living lasers to be implanted or grown within human patients, or for the production of living machinery able to interface with optical communications networks.

"Since they were first developed some 50 years ago, lasers have used synthetic materials such as crystals, dyes and purified gases as optical gain media, within which photon pulses are amplified as they bounces back and forth between two mirrors," says Seok Hyun Yun, a top boffin from the Wellman Center for Photomedicine at Massachusetts General Hospital.

"Ours is the first report of a successful biological laser based on a single, living cell."

Yun and his colleague Malte Gather created their lasercyte by meddling with some unspecified mammal cells to make them produce suitable amounts of green fluorescent protein (GFP). GFP, originally discovered in jellyfish, does what it says on the tin - it emits light. In order to make this light coherent, the two boffins placed a lasercyte inside a tiny spherical device rigged with mirrors at the ends, as in a regular laser.

According to a statement issued by Massachusetts General:

Not only did the cell-based device produce pulses of laser light [but] the researchers also found that the spherical shape of the cell itself acted as a lens, refocusing the light and inducing emission of laser light at lower energy levels ... The cells used in the device survived the lasing process and were able to continue producing hundreds of pulses of laser light.

"The ability to generate laser light from a biocompatible source placed inside a patient could be useful," comments Yun, though at the moment he is thinking more of medical imaging and such like as opposed to the ability to emit deadly energy rays from one's eyes or similar.

Gather, on the other hand, is thinking more of making biological machinery that might one day let you plug an optical fibre straight into your brain, or similar.

"One of our long-term goals will be finding ways to bring optical communications and computing, currently done with inanimate electronic devices, into the realm of biotechnology," explains the scientist. "That could be particularly useful in projects requiring the interfacing of electronics with biological organisms."

Yun and Gather's study is published online by Nature Photonics. ®

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