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No, COVID vaccines do not make you glow

3 Nov. 2021 – The rumors started last spring but was upset this week when a journalist mistakenly tweeted that COVID-19 vaccines contains something called “luciferase”. The journalist, a correspondent with the outlet Newsmax, believed that the name referred to Lucifer, another name for the devil. From there, others added more layers to the untrue story, leading scientists to social media and explain what luciferase really is and do.

COVID vaccines does not contain luciferase, and the chemical is not named after any of the versions of Lucifer that have been splashed in human stories since pre-Christian times. The name is rather taken from the Latin meaning of “lucifer”, which is “light bearer”. Luciferases are enzymes that act on high-energy molecules in animals such as fireflies. The released energy from this breakdown gives these animals their glow, or bioluminescence.

This unexpected focus on bioluminescence provides a learning moment about how researchers borrowed these enzymes to use as laboratory tools, including in animal studies of some COVID vaccines.

One use is to track where and when cells use genes. Genes have regions that act like switches, which enable or disable the use of a gene. Scientists who want to see when a cell turns a gene “on” can enter the code for luciferase next to this genetic switch. Whenever the cell uses the target gene, it also uses the luciferase code. If researchers also add the molecule that luciferase acts on, the result is a cell that glows when it uses the gene – and the luciferase.

Scientists can also use luciferases to label specific cell types and track them around in a living animal, such as a mouse. In this way they can, for example, trace a tumor’s journey in the body. Luciferases has been used for the development of diagnostic tests for infectious diseases, including COVID, and for detection how viruses invade cells.

In the development of COVID vaccines, researchers used a luciferase in some mouse studies to detect where the vaccine mRNA went in the animals. They used the enzyme only for those studies, and it is not part of any of the mRNA vaccines given to humans or any of the other COVID vaccines. In other words, being vaccinated will not cause you to glow like a firefly.

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