Lighting Up Molecular Biology

Professor Donald Helinski joined the university during its infancy in 1965 as associate professor in biology. In the intervening years as the campus has grown and attained national prominence in science and research, Helinski’s academic career and contributions have flourished as well. In addition to his research and teaching responsibilities, Helinski was Chair for the Department of Biology and several other programs including the NIH Microbial Physiology Study Section, UC Systemwide Biotechnology Research and Education Program; was Associate Dean, Natural Sciences; and, since 1994, was Research Professor. As a well-respected teacher and mentor, he will continue to have an impact through the knowledge he has shared with his former students and colleagues.

During his 40+ years at the university, Professor Helinski was a contributor to the birth of biotechnology, for example, serving on the NIH Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee in the late 1970’s. Along with his fellow researchers, in the early 1980’s, he developed a tool that is still widely used today in life science research. This tool, firefly luciferase, developed by Professor Donald Helinski and his former collaborator the late Professor Marlene (DeLuca) McElroy and their research groups, allows the detection of biological activity.

In nature, fireflies contain luciferase, an enzyme that catalyses a light-emitting reaction used to startle predators. Researchers today use recombinant luciferase in a wide variety of biological assays. Professors Helinski and McElroy were able to clone and express regions of DNA that encode the enzyme with bioluminescence-producing activity. As stated in US Patent No. 5,583,024 (issued December 10, 1996), “This invention makes possible the isolation of a bioluminescent reporter molecule, luciferase, useful in virtually all biological assays, and additionally permits the molecular construction of dual-function hybrid molecules.” Subsequently, two additional patents on this technology were issued, US Patent No, 5.674.713 (October 7, 1997) and US Patent No. 5.700.673 (December 23, 1997).

This practical tool, with far reaching impact, is licensed to several companies and is sold worldwide. From laboratory research to useful new products, this technology is an excellent example of how research can be translated into marketable products that will continue to facilitate new discoveries about gene regulation and function.

Donald Helinski earned his Ph.D. at Case Western Reserve University and held a postdoctoral fellowship at Stanford University. He serves on the editorial boards of Plasmid and Genetic Engineering. Professor Helinski is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the European Molecular Biology Organization and the American Academy of Microbiology.

Prior to his recent retirement, Professor Helinski’s research efforts were focused on the genetic and biochemical basis of stable maintenance of plasmids in bacteria. Next month, Professor Helinski will receive the 2006 Outstanding Innovation Award presented by Chancellor Marye Anne Fox based on his contributions to life science research at the Third Biennial UCSD Innovators’ Showcase to be held at the Birch Aquarium at Scripps.

The Molecular Biology Section of UCSD’s Division of Biological Sciences provides the basic scientific knowledge applicable to all areas of biology. The Section’s focus is on studies of mammalian cells and microbial organisms at the genetic and biochemical levels, and centers on some of the underlying mechanisms that mediate biological processes such as gene regulation, and cell growth-differentiation, development, and death.