Single-cell biological lasers


Since their invention some 50 years ago1, lasers have made a tremendous impact on modern science and technology. Nevertheless, lasing has so far relied on artificial or engineered optical gain materials, such as doped crystals, semiconductors, synthetic dyes and purified gases2,3. Here, we show that fluorescent proteins4,5 in cells are a viable gain medium for optical amplification, and report the first successful realization of biological cell lasers based on green fluorescent protein (GFP). We demonstrate in vitro protein lasers using recombinant GFP solutions and introduce a laser based on single live cells expressing GFP. On optical pumping with nanojoule/nanosecond pulses, individual cells in a high-Q microcavity produce bright, directional and narrowband laser emission, with characteristic longitudinal and transverse modes. Lasing cells remained alive even after prolonged lasing action. Light amplification and lasing from and within biological systems pave the way to new forms of intracellular sensing, cytometry and imaging.

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Figure 1: A protein solution laser.
Figure 2: Laser formed by a single eukaryotic cell.
Figure 3: Comparison of emission from the single-cell laser below and above the lasing threshold.
Figure 4: Combined spatial and spectral analysis of single output pulses of different cell lasers.


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The authors thank Ji-Joon Song (KAIST, Korea) for providing recombinant eGFP solutions, S. Sassi and B. Seed (Harvard Medical School) for the donation of 293ETN cells and support with eGFP transfection, U. Shama for initial testing of a fluorescent protein and W. Farinelli for setting up the OPO system. This work was supported in part by the US National Science Foundation (ECCS-1101947) and the Korea National Research Foundation (R31-2008-000-10071-0). M.C.G. acknowledges financial support from the Bullock-Wellman Fellowship.

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M.C.G. designed and performed the experiments. S.H.Y conceived and supervised the project. Both authors discussed the data and wrote the paper.

Correspondence to Seok Hyun Yun.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Gather, M., Yun, S. Single-cell biological lasers. Nature Photon 5, 406–410 (2011).

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