When we think of Connecticut College, we generally think of liberal arts, not necessarily the science research. Some of us might not even realize that Conn has serious research programs on campus, led by our own professors.
One of the research teams based at Conn, led by chemistry professor Bruce Branchini, has just been awarded US patent 7,807,429 for its work on a firefly enzyme. The team has been issued European patent, no. 2 002 007 B1, based on the US patent.
Branchini’s team, which included colleagues from the University of Bologna in Italy and Conn undergraduates, was able to isolate the gene in the Italian firefly Luciola Italica that produces the enzyme that allows light to be emitted. The project received funding from The National Science Foundation, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR) and the Hans and Ella McCollum ’21 Vahlteich Endowment. The team was also able to create genetic variations of the enzyme and change the color of the light emitted from yellow-green to orange-red.
This enzyme is useful in drug screening, biosensors for pollutants and diseases, devices that can provide illumination without heat, spark, or flame, anti-tampering devices, and in vivo imaging.
Branchini, who is director of the College’s Bioluminescence Research Group, has been a part of the Connecticut College faculty since 1986. He has mentored and overseen the research activities of more than eighty-five undergraduates here at Conn. In addition to leading research at the college, Professor Branchini also teaches courses in biochemistry and organic chemistry.
Professor Branchini is very excited about what the patent means for the college. “The patent publication will be noted by businesses involved in the science enterprise, and associating the College’s name will have some benefit, hopefully in the tough job market that exists today.” He is currently working on several new projects, including exploring how enzymes generate visible light and developing new reagents to examine enzymes that are involved in physiological processes like blood clotting, with his lab.
Canissa Grant ’12, a student who has done research with biology professor Martha Grossel, was also happy to hear about the patent. “I feel really excited about our school getting a patent. I know how hard Professor Branchini, along with his research team, worked to produce this.”
Branchini and his team are not the only people on campus that have worked to get a patent. Assistant Professor Jeff Strabone of the English Department also has a patent in the works for a new voting system. The system would allow people to vote at any polling place within their state, rather than force them to vote only closest to where they live. Professor Strabone says that he acted after the problems voters faced in Ohio in 2004. Such a voting system could help those who commute to work and those who face long lines at their local voting places.
“If my invention makes it to the real world, it could revolutionize voting. If it does not, I am going to be out a whole lot of money. Sometimes, one has to be willing to take a risk for one’s vision,” Strabone said. •