Bioluminescent tools for noninvasive, real-time imaging of immunometabolism

Immunology and metabolism are two complicated, interconnected systems that impinge on many aspects of health and disease. To better understand the immune system, and how it dovetails with our diets, researchers need better toolkits to track and manipulate multiple kinds of cells and molecules at once, over time, in a living animal. Drs. Jennifer Prescher and Michelle Digman are leading the development of a new technique to shine “biological flashlights” on many different immune- and metabolism-related molecules at the same time. The technique, which they dub bioluminescent phasor, will ultimately yield a large toolkit of optical tags that can simultaneously light up multiple processes or proteins in the laboratory mouse’s immune system. They are developing the tags in a certain type of immune cell known as a macrophage, a white blood cell that engulfs and destroys unhealthy materials in the body such as dangerous bacteria, but the method could be used in other kinds of cells as well. Once complete, the toolkit would be available for any research lab to use, opening new avenues for discoveries about the immune system and its relationship to our diet. 

Affiliated Investigators

Jennifer Prescher, Ph.D.

University of California, Irvine

Prof. Jennifer Prescher is a Professor of Chemistry, Molecular and Cell Biology & Biochemistry, and Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of California, Irvine. She earned her Bachelor of Science degree in Chemistry from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. She later received her Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of California, Berkeley, working with Prof. Carolyn Bertozzi on chemical methods to tag cell surface glycans with imaging probes. Following her doctoral studies, she conducted postdoctoral research with Prof. Christopher Contag at Stanford University. At Stanford, Dr. Prescher developed new methods to visualize subsets of tumorigenic cells in mouse models of cancer. She joined the faculty at UC Irvine in 2010, where her laboratory focuses on the development of chemical tools and noninvasive imaging strategies to probe multi-cellular systems.

Michelle Digman, Ph.D.

University of California, Irvine

Michelle Digman is Associate Professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at the University of California, Irvine. She is Co-equity advisor for the Henry Samueli School of Engineering, BME Associate Chair for Graduate Affairs, the Co-I of the Laboratory for Fluorescence Dynamics (a P41 NIH Center) and Director of W.M. Keck Nanoimaging Lab. She received her PhD in Chemistry from University of Illinois at Chicago in 2003 and did her postdoctoral work at the University of Illinois, Urban-Champaign in the Department of Physics. 

Dr. Digman began her faculty position in 2013 at UCIrvine. Her research interest focuses on developing and applying novel biophysical, bioengineering and optical tools to study biological questions with the goal of harnessing the gained knowledge to the advancement of human health. Digman’s group is developing and applying the phasor approach to fluorescence lifetime imaging microscopy (FLIM), hyperspectral imaging microscopy and bioluminescence imaging. These technologies enable the characterization of intrinsic or extrinsic light emitting molecular lifetimes or spectral properties for various applications in her lab including cancer invasion, neurodegenerative diseases, bacterial virulence, and developmental biology.   In addition to the phasor method, Digman’s group also develops and applies quantitative spatial and temporal correlation spectroscopies (including FCS, RICS, N&B, pair-correlation spectroscopy and FDTI) for protein mapping protein diffusion, mapping protein aggregation, and mapping fluorescence diffusion of molecular flow in living cells.  Dr. Digman is passionate about community outreach. She initiated the outreach program for minority community college students and outstanding high school students called Undergraduate Student Initiative for Biomedical Research (USIBR), which has been in operation since 2011. Her goals are to continue with a strong, collaborative and productive laboratory engaging in growth and development of her research group through targeted teaching, mentoring and aiding in the strategic growth of the University though service, increase diversity initiatives and collaboration. 

Dr. Digman is a Scialog Fellow and has won several awards including the NSF-CAREER award, the Hellman Fellowship, the Fluorescence Young Investigator Award from the Biophysical Society, the Faculty Innovation in Teaching award and has received the Henry Samueli Career Development Chair. She has coauthored over 100 peer reviewed manuscripts and 6 book chapters.