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  • Controlling Genes with Light
Jul 2013
CAMBRIDGE, Mass., July 24, 2013 — A single pulse of light can rapidly start or halt the expression of any gene of interest, giving researchers a new tool for better understanding its function.

Humans have an estimated 20,000 genes, but only a fraction of those are turned on at any given time, depending on the cell’s needs — which can change by the minute or hour. To more closely track what genes are doing, researchers are looking to optogenetics, which uses proteins that change their function in response to light.

Scientists at MIT, the Broad Institute and Harvard University have adapted light-sensitive proteins that can either stimulate or suppress the expression of a specific target gene almost immediately after the light comes on.

“Cells have very dynamic gene expression happening on a fairly short timescale, but so far the methods that are used to perturb gene expression don’t even get close to those dynamics,” said Silvana Konermann, an MIT graduate student in brain and cognitive sciences. “To understand the functional impact of those gene-expression changes better, we have to be able to match the naturally occurring dynamics as closely as possible.”

The ability to precisely control the timing and duration of gene expression should make it easier to discover the roles of particular genes, especially those involved in learning and memory.

Shining light on genes
The new system consists of several components that interact with one another to control the copying of DNA into messenger RNA (mRNA), which carries genetic instructions to the rest of the cell. The first is a DNA-binding protein known as a transcription activator-like effector (TALE). TALEs are modular proteins that can be strung together in a customized way to bind any DNA sequence.

Fused to the TALE protein is a light-sensitive protein called CRY2 that is naturally found in Arabidopsis thaliana, a small flowering plant. When light hits CRY2, it changes shape and binds to its natural partner protein, known as CIB1. Taking advantage of this characteristic, the researchers engineered a form of CIB1 that is fused to another protein that either activates or suppresses gene copying.

After the genes for these components are delivered to a cell, the TALE protein finds its target DNA and wraps around it. When light shines on the cells, the CRY2 protein binds to CIB1, which is floating in the cell. CIB1 brings along a gene activator, which initiates transcription, or the copying of DNA into mRNA. Alternatively, CIB1 could carry a repressor, which shuts off the process.

A single pulse of light is enough to stimulate the protein binding and initiate DNA copying. Pulses of light delivered every minute or so were the most effective way to achieve continuous transcription for the desired period of time, the investigators said. Within 30 minutes of light delivery, an uptick in the amount of mRNA being produced from the target gene was detected. Once the pulses stop, the mRNA starts to degrade within about 30 minutes.

Nearly 30 different genes were targeted — both in neurons grown in the lab and in living animals. Depending on the gene targeted and on how much it is normally expressed, the researchers were able to boost transcription by a factor of two to 200.

The most important innovation of the technique is that it allows control of genes that naturally occur in the cell, as opposed to engineered genes delivered by scientists, said Karl Deisseroth, a professor of bioengineering at Stanford University and one of the inventors of optogenetics.

“You could control, at precise times, a particular genetic locus and see how everything responds to that, with high temporal precision,” said Deisseroth, who was not part of the research team.

Epigenetic modifications
The new system also can be used to study epigenetic modifications — chemical alterations of the proteins that surround DNA — which are also believed to play an important role in learning and memory.

One major class of epigenetic effectors is chemical modification of the proteins, known as histones, that anchor chromosomal DNA and control access to the underlying genes. The researchers showed that they can also alter these epigenetic modifications by fusing TALE proteins with histone modifiers.

Until now, these modifications have not been very well explored because there are no good ways to disrupt them, short of blocking histone modification of the entire genome. The new technique offers a much more precise way to interfere with modifications of individual genes.

“We want to allow people to prove the causal role of specific epigenetic modifications in the genome,” said Feng Zhang, the W.M. Keck Assistant Professor in Biomedical Engineering at MIT and a core member of the Broad Institute and MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research.

So far, the researchers have demonstrated that some of the histone effector domains can be tethered to light-sensitive proteins; they are now working to expand the types of histone modifiers they can incorporate into the system.

“It would be really useful to expand the number of epigenetic marks that we can control. At the moment we have a successful set of histone modifications, but there are a good deal more of them that we and others are going to want to be able to use this technology for,” said Mark Brigham, a graduate student at Harvard University.

The technique was described online in Nature (doi: 10.1038/nature12466). 

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A discipline that combines optics and genetics to enable the use of light to stimulate and control cells in living tissue, typically neurons, which have been genetically modified to respond to light. Only the cells that have been modified to include light-sensitive proteins will be under control of the light. The ability to selectively target cells gives researchers precise control. Using light to control the excitation, inhibition and signaling pathways of specific cells or groups of cells...
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