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Evaluation of bioluminescence-based assays of anti-malarial drug activity

Sandra Hasenkamp1, Adam Sidaway2, Oliver Devine3, Richard Roye2 and Paul Horrocks13*

Author Affiliations

1 Institute for Science and Technology in Medicine, Keele University, Staffordshire, UK

2 School of Life Sciences, Keele University, Staffordshire, UK

3 School of Medicine, Keele University, Staffordshire, ST5 5BG, UK

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Malaria Journal 2013, 12:58  doi:10.1186/1475-2875-12-58

Published: 8 February 2013



Transgenic Plasmodium falciparum expressing luciferase offers an attractive bioluminescence-based assay platform for the investigation of the pharmacological properties of anti-malarial drugs. Here a side-by-side comparison of bioluminescence and fluorescence-based assays, utilizing a luciferase reporter cassette that confers a strong temporal pattern of luciferase expression during the S-phase of intraerythrocytic development, is reported.


Key assay parameters for a range of commercially available luminogenic substrates are determined and compared to those measured using a Malaria Sybr Green I fluorescence assay. In addition, the short-term temporal effects of anti-malarial compounds are evaluated using both bioluminescent and fluorescent assay platforms.


The Z’, % coefficient of variation and 50% inhibition concentrations are essentially the same for bioluminescent and fluorescent assays in transgenic parasites generated in both chloroquine-sensitive and -resistant genetic backgrounds. Bioluminescent assays, irrespective of the luminogenic agent employed, do, however, offer significantly enhanced signal-to-noise ratios. Moreover, the bioluminescent assay is more dynamic in terms of determining temporal effects immediately following drug perturbation.


This study suggests that opportunities for bioluminescence-based assays lie not in the measurement of 50% inhibition concentrations, where the cheaper fluorescence assay performs excellently and is not restricted by the need to genetically modify the parasite clone under investigation. Instead, assays that use the dynamic response of the luciferase reporter for semi-automated screening of additional pharmacological properties, such as relative rate-of-kill and lethal dose estimation, are a more attractive development opportunity.

Luciferase; Sybr green I; Antimalarial drug; Relative rate of kill; Malaria