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.
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
The authors hope that 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.
Karl Deisseroth, a professor of bioengineering at Stanford University and one of the inventors of optogenetics, says the most important innovation of the technique is that it allows control of genes that naturally occur in the cell, as opposed to engineered genes delivered by scientists.
“You could control, at precise times, a particular genetic locus and see how everything responds to that, with high temporal precision,” says Deisseroth, who was not part of the research team.
Sounds wonderful work with many possible further studies.
Read more of this at MIT
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