The Notorious F.L.U.O.R.E.S.C.E.N.C.E

Today I’m talking to Amy Davies about FAME (but I needed an ‘N’ so I went with notorious…) To hear more from Amy and why fluorescence really should be as big as Biggie join her for her show ‘The Dark Side Of Fluorescence’ on the 21st August at the New Town Theatre. 

What would you want to be famous for?

I’m passionate about talking about science with anyone, children, adults, friends, colleagues, family and even strangers on a train. I’ve designed and run activities for schools and science festivals, and even been on radio programmes. So in deciding to put on a show in this year’s Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas, my friends and family joke that I’m aiming to be a famous scientist; the next Brian Cox or Alice Roberts for example, and have my own science show on TV. That is not true. Although I enjoy talking with people about my research or science in general, I’d like to be known for my contribution to science. I’m at en early stage in my career and still searching for my niche but I hope that my work is well done, useful and can be built upon to discover something beneficial.

So would I like to be famous for something? Not really. But it would be nice to be known as someone who did good work and was able to talk with anyone about it.

What is fluorescence most notable for?

My first encounter with fluorescence was as a child watching nature documentaries with amazing videos of glowing fish in the sea or bioluminescent insects on land and enchantingly narrated by David Attenborough. I think that is still the case today: with the impressive improvement in camera and submersible technologies, even more fluorescent and bioluminescent creatures are shown in all their glory in programmes such as BBC’s Blue Planet.

I think the genetically modified “glow-in-the-dark” animals, such as cats or mice, are also a common talking point for fluorescence. They make for quite striking images and newspaper headlines so are quite memorable.

What do you think it should be famous for?

Fluorescent proteins and bioluminescence have completely revolutionised our understanding of biology. Fluorescent proteins, such as those found in jellyfish, are able to absorb light and re-emit it as a different colour light. While in bioluminescence, as seen in firefly, light is produced by a chemical reaction. We can now get cells or even whole animals to make these fluorescent proteins which allows researchers to see previously invisible proteins in live cells.

In “live cells” is the really important part. Previously, we could see these proteins in cells at a fixed time point. Drawing conclusions from those images is like taking a photo of a motorway and then claiming that there are always 20 cars driving south and 30 cars driving north while in real life that number changes constantly. Therefore, by using fluorescent proteins, in live cells, we are able learn about a particular protein: their numbers, their locations, their behaviours and importantly what happens to them in diseases (e.g. cancer) or when treated with a drug. This can be expanded beyond just one cell to help understand how whole organs work too.

I think that it’s great that fluorescence is known for glowing animals and pretty pictures of cells but I would like it to be also famous for helping to discover what is going on in the invisible, complex and busy world of cells.

 Why do people not know about these aspects of fluorescence?

While many people will have seen images of fluorescently labelled cells or green glowing animals, the significance of the scientific research behind those images is not immediately obvious. Questions about what the images show, what is glowing and why this is important are not often communicated outside of research. This is a shame and researchers, like myself, need to do more to talk about our work and engage in conversations about it with the public. I think programmes such as CODI are a great way for us to do just that.