The art of reporter proteins in science: past, present and future applications

 Starting with the first publication of lacZ gene fusion in 1980, reporter genes have just entered their fourth decade. Initial studies relied on the simple fusion of a promoter or gene with a particular reporter gene of interest. Such constructs were then used to determine the promoter activity under specific conditions or within a given cell or organ. Although this protocol was, and still is, very effective, current research shows a paradigm shift has occurred in the use of reporter systems. With the advent of innovative cloning and synthetic biology techniques and microfluidic/nanodroplet systems, reporter genes and their proteins are now finding themselves used in increasingly intricate and novel applications. For example, researchers have used fluorescent proteins to study biofilm formation and discovered that microchannels develop within the biofilm. Furthermore, there has recently been a “fusion” of art and science; through the construction of genetic circuits and regulatory systems, researchers are using bacteria to “paint” pictures based upon external stimuli. As such, this review will discuss the past and current trends in reporter gene applications as well as some exciting potential applications and models that are being developed based upon these remarkable proteins.

BMB reports, 2010, 43, 451-60.