Research program aims to develop next generation of optogenetics tools

A new priority program at Goethe University (Frankfurt, Germany) has the goal of developing the next generation of optogenetics tools and expanding their application in basic research and for medical purposes. The German Research Foundation (DFG; Bonn, Germany) will provide $6.4 million (€6 million) in funding for the program over the next three years.

Related: The BRAIN Initiative: Opportunities for optics and photonics

The program, called "Next generation optogenetics: Tool development and applications," will begin with an application phase in fall 2015. Between 30 and 40 scientists from different universities will become involved—primarily biophysicists, cell biologists, chemists, medical scientists, and photobiologists. These are the types of specialists who will search for new, light-sensitive proteins for optogenetics, which will be introduced into cells and act like light switches to turn cellular processes on and off.

"Optogenetics already has many applications in basic research, but as a technology it is still in its infancy," explains Prof. Alexander Gottschalk, the spokesperson for the priority program. To achieve more widespread use of optogenetics in cell biology and neurobiology, the researchers want to develop new optogenetic tools. These will have higher light sensitivity, clarify the processes within individual cells and between different cells, and ultimately also be tested in animal models. This is necessary, especially with regard to medical applications; for example, for enabling treatment of certain vision and hearing impairments or aspects of previously incurable diseases, such as Parkinson's disease, seizure disorders, or cardiac diseases.

The scientists are placing special importance on informing the public about the opportunities and risks of optogenetics. This will be done through intelligible presentations and articles on websites such as www.openoptogenetics.org, http://dasgehirn.info, and the future website of the research program.

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