Blue light prompts protein clustering and, in turn, advances optogenetics

A team of engineers have discovered a way to give optogenetics a boost: By using blue light as a switch, targeted proteins can accumulate into large clusters.

Blue light prompts protein clustering and, in turn, advances optogenetics
Blue light prompts protein clustering and, in turn, advances optogenetics

Engineers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (Troy, NY) and the University of California, Berkeley (Berkeley, CA) have discovered a way to give optogenetics a boost: By using blue light as a switch, targeted proteins can accumulate into large clusters. A new study by the research team details how this process can be replicated with great precision, giving researchers new capabilities to control and influence the process of clustering, called oligomerization, and cell signaling.

In their study, the research team shined blue light onto cells containing a bioengineered protein, and by doing so they were able to activate cell signaling more effectively than they could using the natural ligand Wnt3a. This protein clustering induced by shining light was reversible—upon removing the blue light, the cluster broke up within a few minutes. The researchers also demonstrated how to use this modular technique to cluster proteins that control cell shape.

Blue light prompts protein clustering and, in turn, advances optogeneticsBlue light prompts protein clustering and, in turn, advances optogenetics
Image courtesy of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute/UC Berkeley

“Our study shows a new use for using energy, in this case light, as a tool to understand and control cellular function. In this study, we demonstrated a new method for turning specific cell signaling pathways on and off with spatial and temporal precision, and use this to help better understand the dynamics of the pathway. At the same time, our technique can be used to control certain cell functions,” say Ravi Kane, the P.K. Lashmet Professor in the Howard P. Isermann Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering and faculty member of the Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies at Rensselaer, and Professor David Schaffer, Department of Chemical Engineering at the UC Berkeley, both of whom led the study.

Looking ahead, Kane says, it is possible the new process may also one day be able to help optimize cellular function and produce products of interest to energy production, such as biofuels.

“The new process can be applied to many different types of proteins, signaling pathways, and cells,” says study co-author Lukasz Bugaj, graduate student at UC Berkeley. The research team plans to continue investigating new ways of controlling different aspects of cells and cellular function with light.

Results of the study have been published in Nature Methods; for more information, please visit http://go.nature.com/jPqpHa.

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