Optogenetics – the new promise today
Nature Magazine has again provided us with plenty of food for thought.
One particular article from the admirable list of advanced online publications caught my attention not only because of the groundbreaking research, but because it reminded me that the way to applicable technology starts with basic research. This time, the focus is on optogenetics, which combines techniques as diverse as genetic manipulation and the use of light.
More than genetic engineering, what optogenetics does is to control live organisms in real time make with the use of light-sensitive proteins. This is science fiction happening now.
As you may remember, optogenetics was elected “method of the year” back in 2010 , as well as featured in the “Insights of the decade” published in the same year because of its promising applications. In 2011 (Nature Methods 8,26–29(2011)doi:10.1038/nmeth.f.324) Optogenetics was already depicted as a well-established and highly effective laboratory technique: “By delivering optical control at the speed (millisecond-scale) and with the precision (cell type–specific) required for biological processing, optogenetic approaches have opened new landscapes for the study of biology, both in health and disease.” However, until now, optogenetics awaited the type of technical development that would allow its applicability to be as wide as some had envisioned. Thanks to the work now reported, it is now easier to use optogenetics – or opto, we can now make it a more “casual” technique.
The authores present it as a ”novel mode of optogenetic control of endogenous cellular processes”. What it actually means is that more labs will start using it as a technical approach to study genetic regulation as well as epigenetic phenomena, which is to say that every lab will want to use it!
If you work in a molecular biology, basic medicine, human or animal genetics, virology, parasitology, microbiology, immunology or pathology laboratory (the list could go on and on…) you will be interested in the way genes, and their epigenetic modifications, are able to dictate the fate of a cell. More so, if you want to find a cure for a particular disease, not only you want to understand gene regulation, your major wish is to control it. Now, you and your colleagues have a new tool in your hands: opto. What made this new work so appealing to me was that this technique was developed because scientists mastered some powerful techniques that allow mammalian genome manipulation. By studying one cellular phenomenon – transcriptional regulation of genes and epigenetics are good examples – and identifying all the molecular players and mechanisms involved, researchers have opened the path for new techniques to go from science fiction to reality. And what is most remarkable (ironic?) is that optogenetics – remember: this could become a favorite amongst gene regulation techniques – can now be the ultimate tool to study with unprecedented depth the way cells regulate… their own genes.