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Next generation optogenetics: tool development and application

March 2015. Optogenetics has revolutionized neuroscience and is starting to revolutionize cell biology research too. New fields of investigation have emerged because of the exhiting new possibilities offered by this still relatively new method. The accurate manipulation of activity at the cellular and molecular level made possible through optogenetic methods allows for example the unraveling of signaling pathways inside living cells. New prospects for medical therapy are also on the horizon, such as restoration of vision or hearing.

A new Priority Programme funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) will drive the development of next generation optogenetic tools, expanding thier applications in basic and medical research. The programme is led by Alexander Gottschalk from the Goethe University Frankfurt. It will be funded with six million euros for three years and enable many groups across Germany to participate in this research.
"Despite its many applications, as a technology optogenetics is still in its infancy" explains Alexander Gottschalk. So far optogenetic tools have mostly been limited by the availability of naturally occurring light-sensitive proteins that translate a light signal into cellular effects. Many more cellular activities are desirable targets for light control but proteins addressing them either have not evolved or were not found yet. To access different and novel aspects of cell and neurobiology, optogenetics needs to be developed further.

To be effective and meaningful, optogenetic tool development has to be both mechanism- and application-driven, requiring close interaction between disciplines. Collaboration between different fields such as biophysics, cell biology, neuroscience, engineering always played an important part in optogenetics, yet the new DFG funding will allow a much better integration of development and application to drive new optogenetic applications in basic science and medicine.

The scientists involved in the new programme are very keen that the general public is informed about the opportunities presented by this new technology but also potential risks that may be associated wtih it. The team will inform the general public about their progress via public lectures, its own website (under construction) as well as contributions to websites such as  OpenOptogenetics.org and dasGehirn.info.

Alexander Gottschalk, Institute of Biochemistry and Buchmann Institute for Molecular Life Sciences (BMLS), Goethe University, Max-von-Laue-Str. 15, D-60438 Frankfurt; Tel: +49 69 798-42518; e-mail: a.gottschalk@em.uni-frankfurt.de