The very first recruited X-men team member, Cyclops, a.k.a. Scott Summers, is the archetypal hero of comics. The foil to Wolverine’s anti-hero, Cyclops had been the reluctant leader of the X-men, but has since become an effective commander for the team. Both a blessing and a curse, his mutant powers give him the power to emit red beams of energy from his eyes described as an “optic blast.” The beams do not give off heat and instead deliver concussive force without recoil. His optic lasers are incredibly powerful and can even rupture steel plates and destroy rock.
It seems like it would be a fairly straightforward process to create a completely mechanical system to mimic Cyclops’ optic blasts, but I think a biological system would be more ideal. Not only is it closer to comic book canon, an inherent biological system would have the added benefits of not relying on an external power source. Luckily, physicists Malte Gather and Seok-Hyun Yun of Harvard Medical School in Boston have recently taken the first steps in the development of such a system.
Reporting their findings in Nature Photonics in the article Single-cell biological lasers, Gather and Yun discuss how they were able to create the first “living laser” using living biological material: a single kidney human cell and some jellyfish protein. There are two central components to building any type of laser: first, a lasing material that amplifies light from an external source, or a ‘gain medium’, and second, an arrangement of mirrors, or an ‘optical cavity’, which concentrates and aligns the light waves into a tight beam. Until now, the gain medium has only been made from non-biological substances such as doped crystals, semiconductors or gases, but in this case the researchers used enhanced green fluorescent protein (GFP) — the substance that makes jellyfish bioluminescent, which is used extensively in cell biology to label cells.
The team engineered human embryonic kidney cells to produce GFP, then placed a single cell between two mirrors to make an optical cavity just 20 micrometres across. When they fed the cell pulses of blue light, it emitted a directional laser beam visible with the naked eye — and the cell wasn’t harmed. The width of the laser beam is “tiny” and “fairly weak” in its brightness compared to traditional lasers, says Yun, but “an order of magnitude” brighter than natural jellyfish fluorescence, with a “beautiful green” colour.