Rights: The University of Waikato Published 1 May 2006 Download

A great deal of research in the Nutrigenomics Project is carried out using cells that are too small to see. Dr Martin Philpott of Auckland Medical School explains how you can measure the ways that these cells respond to different food molecules.

In the Nutrigenomics Project, cell lines have been developed that mimic a disease situation. Different food molecules are then added to the cells to see what effect they have. One way of measuring the effects of the food molecules on the cells is to add a 'reporter gene' to the cells. The reporter gene will be turned on or off depending on the cell's response to the food molecule. In this case, the reporter gene is a gene from fireflies. It is called the luciferase gene. When the gene is turned on, the cell will glow. The glowing tells researchers what sort of effect the food molecule has had on the cell. In these cell lines, increases in inflammation cause the luciferase gene to be turned on, and the cell to glow.


Dr Martin Philpott (Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences, The University of Auckland)

In the cell lines that we’ve produced, we need to be able to monitor when a food has had a change on the cells that are expressing our gene that we know is involved in Crohns disease. We need a convenient way in which we can monitor this rapidly. So what we do, is we put in a reporter gene. This is a gene that in the case of what we are doing is the firefly luciferase gene. The luciferase gene codes is a protein that is produced by fireflies, that is able to convert energy back into light - so in a way, the opposite of what plants do. And so it’s the protein that causes fireflies to glow. We can put that protein - the gene that expresses that protein - into mammalian cells in such a way so that when the food influences the gene that is associated with Crohns disease, the firefly gene is turned on or off. We can monitor the luminescence of our cells and therefore tell what effect foods have had on the gene that we’ve introduced.