Scientists Say: Optogenetics

This is a technique that scientists use to control cells with light


This illustration shows an example of optogenetics. The blue light shining on this neuron activates channels in the brain cell. This can make the cell more or less active.

Ed Boyden and Massachusetts Institute of Technology McGovern Institute

Optogenetics (noun, “OP-toe-gen-EH-ticks”)

Optogenetics is a technique that can control a cell’s activity with light. It uses a molecule called channelrhodopsin (CHAN-el-roh-DOHP-sin). This molecule is found naturally in algae. It sits in a cell membrane. There, it acts like a gate, letting charged particles in or out. That rush of particles can make a cell pass messages to other cells. A channelrhodopsin opens in response to light. It can turn a cell’s activity up when the light turns on. In algae, the channel serves as a way to sense light.

Scientists can insert the genetic instructions for a channelrhodopsin into a cell they want to control. The cell then makes the channelrhodopsin molecule. It then inserts it into its own cell membrane.  When scientists shine a light nearby, the channelrhodopsin opens. That lets particles rush in or out.

Scientists now use optogenetics to control how cells function in the brains of mice, rats and monkeys. This helps the researchers better understand how the cells work. Scientists have been able to use this technique to show how the brain controls hunger. It has also let them learn how the tongue tastes the “flavor” of water.

In a sentence

Scientists are also trying optogenetics in other organs — such as the heart.

This video helps to explain how optogenetics works.
Neuro Transmissions/YouTube

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Bethany Brookshire was a longtime staff writer at Science News Explores and is the author of the book Pests: How Humans Create Animal Villains. She has a Ph.D. in physiology and pharmacology and likes to write about neuroscience, biology, climate and more. She thinks Porgs are an invasive species.