What is luciferase and what does it have to do with vaccines?

By Kristen Panthagani, PhD

This morning I awoke to luciferase trending on twitter. Since the pandemic, I suppose I have grown to expect once niche molecular biology topics to become the focus of mainstream discourse, but it still is rather odd to me when it happens. When I was studying molecular biology, I never dreamed people would be afraid of lipids, believe mRNA is toxic, or use expletives in their arguments over Ct values. Yet here we are. So, what is luciferase, and why is it trending?

A tweet claimed that vaccines contain the bioluminescent marker ‘luciferase’ for the purpose of tracking vaccine recipients. The tweet specifically addresses Christians, saying “Read the last book of the New Testament and see how that ends,” presumably referring to the book of Revelation, the coming of the antichrist, and the mark of the beast. This is not the first time the COVID vaccines have been accused of being a part of an apocalyptic plot.

Who is Lucifer?

So, what is luciferase, and is it in COVID vaccines? And why does the name sound similar to ‘Lucifer,’ one of the names for the devil?

To start, let’s go back and see where the connection between the name ‘Lucifer’ and the devil began. It comes from a passage in the book of Isaiah:

“How you are fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! How you are cut down to the ground, You who weakened the nations!

A common interpretation of this along with other biblical scriptures is that Lucifer was a beautiful angel created by God, but who later rebelled out of pride. After his rebellion, he was called ‘Satan,’ meaning ‘adversary’ or ‘one who plots against another.’

So why do we refer to him as Lucifer? Lucifer is a Latin word that does not mean ‘devil’ or ‘evil one,’ it means light-bearer. In this passage of Isaiah, a more literal translation of the original text is ‘morning star,’ not Lucifer.  The planet Venus was also called the ‘morning star’ and referred to as ‘Lucifer,’ so perhaps this is where the connection between the passage in Isaiah and the Latin word for ‘light-bearer’ was made. A reminder that the book of Isaiah was not written in Latin, thus the name ‘Lucifer’ was not part of the original text, but arose from translations. 

What is luciferase?

Now, to the science. Luciferase is a protein made by fireflies (also called lightning bugs, depending on where you are from) that catalyzes a chemical reaction, making the fireflies glow. The scientists who named this protein were not naming it after the devil, but rather named it for the Latin meaning of the word lucifer, which is (again) “light-bearer.” The protein luciferase literally makes light, hence the name.

Bioluminescent proteins (proteins that make light) are very cool, very pretty, and very useful for research. One common way they are used is to track where microscopic things go inside cells. If we want to know where in a cell (or a mouse) a protein is, we can tag it with one of these glowing proteins and then see where it goes under a microscope. I got to do this during my undergrad research using a different kind of glowing protein (Green Fluorescent Protein), and it was awesome. Glowing organisms are amazing, not evil.

Is there luciferase in the mRNA vaccines?

No. There is no luciferase in any of the vaccines. And even if there were, this could not reasonably be used to track people, for many different reasons. I will go into those more below. It is amazing how many different things people have claimed are in the mRNA vaccines at this point. I’m hearing a new alleged ingredient nearly every week. But the ingredients have been known from the beginning, and there is nothing alarming in there. And, no luciferase.

List of ingredients in mRNA vaccines:

1. The mRNA
2. Lipids (types of fat), including polyethylene glycol (PEG)
3. Salts (containing ions that are naturally found in the body)
4. Tromethamine (commonly used to maintain pH balance, Moderna vaccine only)
5. Sucrose (sugar)

Here are the sources for Pfizer and Moderna vaccine ingredients.

Where did this rumor come from?

The glowing firefly protein luciferase, a common research tool, was used in a few experiments involved in vaccine development.  Specifically, it was used for its most common scientific purpose: to track where molecular things go. To figure out how the body processes mRNA vaccines, researchers made a version of the vaccine that, instead of making the spike protein, made the protein luciferase. Remember that mRNA is just a set of instructions, and can be used to build any protein. Using animal models, they then figured out where in the body it went and how long it stayed there by tracking where and when the lightning bug protein was glowing. This was how luciferase was involved in vaccine research. If you would like to read about the technical details, you can find them here (starts on p. 45). Again, this was just one of many research steps, and did not involve the final vaccine preparation. There are no glowing proteins in the vaccines. That would not make any sense. 

Could you track people with luciferase?

No. Think about fireflies: can you see them glowing? Yes, you can. Now imagine there was a firefly inside your arm. Could you track a person with a firefly inside their arm? No, because their arm blocks the light. So for this hypothetical tracking mechanism to work, either there would have to be so much luciferase that people’s arms would be physically glowing (and thus would be really obvious) or not enough luciferase for the light to make it through the arm (in which case there would be no way to detect the light.) These are just a few of the many reasons why injecting a bioluminescent protein into humans would be useless as a tracking device. Additionally, as the actual experiments that used luciferase showed, the protein encoded by mRNA does not stick around for very long, so after a little while the “tracking device” would be gone. Finally, luciferase needs a chemical substrate for the reaction to work, a substrate which is not present in human cells. Overall the idea of using luminescence to track people is very silly and doesn’t make any sense scientifically.

In conclusion, there is no luciferase in vaccines, and even if there were, this would be about as good of a tracking device as swallowing a firefly. Also, luciferase is not evil, and is named for its natural glowing properties, not due to any connection to the devil.

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