OPTOGENETICS: the science of CONTROLLING GENES (HUMAN GENETICS) via LIGHT (LIGHT= Electromagnetic waves with nanometer wavelengths)
RE-POSTED FROM: https://mcgovern.mit.edu/news/news/controlling-genes-with-light/
New technique uses light to rapidly turn genes on and off
by Anne Trafton | July 22, 2013
Although human cells have an estimated 20,000 genes, 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 find out what those genes are doing, researchers need tools that can manipulate their status on similarly short timescales.
That is now possible, thanks to a new technology developed at MIT and the Broad Institute that can rapidly start or halt the expression of any gene of interest simply by shining light on the cells.
The work is based on a technique known as optogenetics, which uses proteins that change their function in response to light. In this case, the researchers adapted the light-sensitive proteins to 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. 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,” says Silvana Konermann, an MIT graduate student in brain and cognitive sciences.
The ability to precisely control the timing and duration of gene expression should make it much easier to figure out the roles of particular genes, especially those involved in learning and memory. The new system can also 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.
Konermann and Mark Brigham, a graduate student at Harvard University, are the lead authors of a paper describing the technique in the July 22 online edition of Nature. The paper’s senior author is Feng Zhang, the W. M. Keck Career Development Professor in Biomedical Engineering at MIT and a core member of the Broad Institute and MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research.
Shining light on genes
The new system consists of several components that interact with each other 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. To take advantage of this, the researchers engineered a form of CIB1 that is fused to another protein that can either activate or suppress 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.
The researchers found that pulses of light delivered every minute or so are the most effective way to achieve continuous transcription for the desired period of time. Within 30 minutes of light delivery, the researchers detected an uptick in the amount of mRNA being produced from the target gene. Once the pulses stop, the mRNA starts to degrade within about 30 minutes.
In this study, the researchers tried targeting nearly 30 different genes, both in neurons grown in the lab and in living animals. Depending on the gene targeted and how much it is normally expressed, the researchers were able to boost transcription by a factor of two to 200.
An important element of gene-expression control is epigenetic modification. 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.
Epigenetic modifications are thought to play a key role in learning and forming memories, but this has not been very well explored because there are no good ways to disrupt the modifications, 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,” Zhang says.
So far, the researchers have demonstrated that some of the histone effector domains can be tethered to light-sensitive proteins; they are now trying 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,” Brigham says.
The research was funded by a Hubert Schoemaker Fellowship; a National Institutes of Health Transformative R01 Award; an NIH Director’s Pioneer Award; the Keck, McKnight, Vallee, Damon Runyon, Searle Scholars, Klingenstein and Simons foundations; and Bob Metcalfe and Jane Pauley.
Optogenetics is a technique that allows scientists to control neurons’ electrical activity with light by engineering them to express light-sensitive proteins. Within the past decade, it has become a very powerful tool for discovering the functions of different types of cells in the brain.
Most of these light-sensitive proteins, known as opsins, respond to light in the blue-green range. Now, a team led by MIT has discovered an opsin that is sensitive to red light, which allows researchers to independently control the activity of two populations of neurons at once, enabling much more complex studies of brain function.
“If you want to see how two different sets of cells interact, or how two populations of the same cell compete against each other, you need to be able to activate those populations independently,” says Ed Boyden, a member of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT and a senior author of the new study.
The new opsin is one of about 60 light-sensitive proteins found in a screen of 120 species of algae. The study, which appears in the Feb. 9 online edition of Nature Methods, also yielded the fastest opsin, enabling researchers to study neuron activity patterns with millisecond timescale precision.
Boyden and Gane Ka-Shu Wong, a professor of medicine and biological sciences at the University of Alberta, are the paper’s senior authors, and the lead author is MIT postdoc Nathan Klapoetke. Researchers from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Farm Research Campus, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Cologne, and the Beijing Genomics Institute also contributed to the study.
In living color
Opsins occur naturally in many algae and bacteria, which use the light-sensitive proteins to help them respond to their environment and generate energy.
To achieve optical control of neurons, scientists engineer brain cells to express the gene for an opsin, which transports ions across the cell’s membrane to alter its voltage. Depending on the opsin used, shining light on the cell either lowers the voltage and silences neuron firing, or boosts voltage and provokes the cell to generate an electrical impulse. This effect is nearly instantaneous and easily reversible.
Using this approach, researchers can selectively turn a population of cells on or off and observe what happens in the brain. However, until now, they could activate only one population at a time, because the only opsins that responded to red light also responded to blue light, so they couldn’t be paired with other opsins to control two different cell populations.
To seek additional useful opsins, the MIT researchers worked with Wong’s team at the University of Alberta, which is sequencing the transcriptomes of 1,000 plants, including some algae. (The transcriptome is similar to the genome but includes only the genes that are expressed by a cell, not the entirety of its genetic material.)
Once the team obtained genetic sequences that appeared to code for opsins, Klapoetke tested their light-responsiveness in mammalian brain tissue, working with Martha Constantine-Paton, a professor of brain and cognitive sciences and of biology, a member of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT, and also an author of the paper. The red-light-sensitive opsin, which the researchers named Chrimson, can mediate neural activity in response to light with a 735-nanometer
The researchers also discovered a blue-light-driven opsin that has two highly desirable traits: It operates at high speed, and it is sensitive to very dim light. This opsin, called Chronos, can be stimulated with levels of blue light that are too weak to activate Chrimson.
“You can use short pulses of dim blue light to drive the blue one, and you can use strong red light to drive Chrimson, and that allows you to do true two-color, zero-cross-talk activation in intact brain tissue,” says Boyden, who is a member of MIT’s Media Lab and an associate professor of biological engineering and brain and cognitive sciences at MIT.
Researchers had previously tried to modify naturally occurring opsins to make them respond faster and react to dimmer light, but trying to optimize one feature often made other features worse.
“It was apparent that when trying to engineer traits like color, light sensitivity, and kinetics, there are always tradeoffs,” Klapoetke says. “We’re very lucky that something natural actually was more than several times faster and also five or six times more light-sensitive than anything else.”
These new opsins lend themselves to several types of studies that were not possible before, Boyden says. For one, scientists could not only manipulate activity of a cell population of interest, but also control upstream cells that influence the target population by secreting neurotransmitters.
Pairing Chrimson and Chronos could also allow scientists to study the functions of different types of cells in the same microcircuit within the brain. Such cells are usually located very close together, but with the new opsins they can be controlled independently with two different colors of light.
“I think the tools described in this excellent paper represent a major advance for both basic and translational neuroscience,” says Botond Roska, a senior group leader at the Friedrich Miescher Institute for Biomedical Research in Switzerland, who was not part of the research team. “Optogenetic tools that are shifted towards the infrared range, such as Chrimson described in this paper, are much better than the more blue-shifted variants since these are less toxic, activate less the pupillary reflex, and activate less the remaining photoreceptors of patients.”
Most optogenetic studies thus far have been done in mice, but Chrimson could be used for optogenetic studies of fruit flies, a commonly used experimental organism. Researchers have had trouble using blue-light-sensitive opsins in fruit flies because the light can get into the flies’ eyes and startle them, interfering with the behavior being studied.
Vivek Jayaraman, a research group leader at Janelia Farms and an author of the paper, was able to show that this startle response does not occur when red light is used to stimulate Chrimson in fruit flies.
Because red light is less damaging to tissue than blue light, Chrimson also holds potential for eventual therapeutic use in humans, Boyden says. Animal studies with other opsins have shown promise in helping to restore vision after the loss of photoreceptor cells in the retina.
The researchers are now trying to modify Chrimson to respond to light in the infrared range. They are also working on making both Chrimson and Chronos faster and more light sensitive.
MIT’s portion of the project was funded by the National Institutes of Health, the MIT Media Lab, the National Science Foundation, the Wallace H. Coulter Foundation, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, a NARSAD Young Investigator Grant, the Human Frontiers Science Program, an NYSCF Robertson Neuroscience Investigator Award, the IET A.F. Harvey Prize, Janet and Sheldon Razin ’59, and the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology.
How anger goes out of control
A video on the relation between anger, the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex. It highlights how our regulatory systems in the prefrontal cortex may, or may not, inhibit anger.
The video constitutes one of six Brain Mind Introductory Lectures, posted on youtube, each providing an introductory overview of the functional organization of the brain. To reduce confusion, all CT images have been reversed so damage on the left appears on the left, and right sided damage appear on the right. For a detailed presentation I recommend one of the best neuroscience texts of all time: the 2nd edition of Neuropsychiatry, Neuropsychology, Clinical Neuroscience, by Rhawn Joseph, Ph.D.
These are introductory lectures providing an overview of the functional organization of the brain.
Dr. Rhawn Joseph has published major scientific discoveries in prestigious scientific journals and has published several highly acclaimed “best selling” advanced post-graduate textbooks.
In the 1970s he proved/discovered 1) the role of early environmental influences on learning, memory, attention, and impulse control, 2) the role of sex hormones and the lack of sex hormones on sex differences in behavior, cognition, learning, memory, and spatial ability, 3) neurplasticity and recovery of function in the primate brain and is considered one of the founding fathers of the field of Developmental Neuropsychology.
Dr. Joseph also published major scientific discoveries on “split-brain” functioning and the duality of consciousness. He coined the term “limbic language.” His theory of language first published and featured on the cover of the 1983 Journal of Clinical Psychology, has been widely accepted and scientifically verified and numerous scientists now claim the theory as theory as their own.
Dr. Joseph’s scholarly articles and monographs have been reprinted by major universities and medical schools, including Harvard, have been translated and republished by foreign scientific journals, and he has been invited to speak at the University of Geneva, Brigham Young University, the University of Japan, Santa Clara University, and the University of California at Berkeley.