Novel technology to monitor real time protein interactions

Picture: : Salk researcher Yao-Cheng Li and professor Geoffrey Wahl Image source:
Picture: : Salk researcher Yao-Cheng Li and professor Geoffrey Wahl Image source:

In a major step towards understanding how proteins interact with each other in a cell, scientists at the Salk Institute seem to have made important breakthroughs. They have found a way to detect fleeting interactions between a cell’s proteins. This would especially help them to study proteins which cause cancer or are involved in potential pathways through which the disease can be prevented.

Protein-protein interactions play central roles in orchestrating biological processes. While some interactions are stable, many are transient and hard to detect with conventional approaches. Most of the protein-protein interactions still remain a mystery and without a means of studying them, a spectrum of opportunities are being missed.

Researchers under the leadership of Geoffrey Wahl and Yao-Cheng Li developed a technology “recombinase enhanced bi-molecular luciferase complementation,” or ReBiL. This method uses a concept similar to a lamp and a light bulb. The proteins of interest are modified in such a way that they illuminate when they touch, even if this interaction is for an extremely short period of time. The resulting flash of illumination can be recorded using powerful microscopes.  The method also can be used in living cells, which are unharmed by the process.

“This kit for detecting protein-protein interactions can be used to increase screening of drug targets,” said Wahl, a professor in the Gene Expression Laboratory at the Salk Institute. “Targets that light up under a suspected interaction can be identified and used for developing medications.” The research took years to complete due to a paucity of funding and manpower but with recent developments Wahl expects it to take off.


The major turning point for this study was when they successfully showed, using ReBil, the interaction between two proteins, namely p53 and Mdm2, whose interplay causes cancer. They furthered their studies to two more proteins whose interaction was previously unknown. One of these proteins causes Fanconi anemia that leads to diseases like leukemia.   Wahl and his group are optimistic that their technology would push drug development forward by helping scientists study basic behavior of a plethora of vital proteins in the cell.

The original article can be accessed here.

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Manish graduated in Biomedical Sciences from University of Delhi, India and finished his doctorate from Nanyang Technological University, Singapore in RNA biology while working on molecular mechanisms of brain development in mice. Currently, he is working as a Research Fellow in Institute of Medical Biology, Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) with the Translational Control in Development and Disease group. His research areas include developing molecular therapies against glioblastomas and breast cancers as well as investigating mechanisms involved in muscular dystrophies. He is a music lover and loves playing the sitar. An ardent follower of Manchester United and Formula One, he likes to spend his time reading, watching movies and cooking.