Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Scientists build new 'off switch' to shut down neural activity

Date:
April 24, 2014
Source:
Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI)
Summary:
Nearly a decade ago, the era of optogenetics was ushered in with the development of channelrhodopsins, light-activated ion channels that can, with the flick of a switch, instantaneously turn on neurons in which they are genetically expressed. What has lagged behind, however, is the ability to use light to inactivate neurons with an equal level of reliability and efficiency. Now, scientists have used an analysis of channelrhodopsin's molecular structure to guide a series of genetic mutations to the ion channel that grant the power to silence neurons with an unprecedented level of control.

Channelrhodopsins before (upper left) and after (lower right) molecular engineering, shown superimposed over an image of a mammalian neuron. In the upper left opsin, the red color shows negative charges spanning the opsin that facilitated the flow of positive (stimulatory) ions through the channel into neurons. In the newly engineered channels (lower right), those negative charges have been changed to positive (blue), allowing the negatively charged inhibitory chloride ions to flow through.
Credit: Andre Berndt, Soo Yeun Lee, Charu Ramakrishnan, and Karl Deisseroth

Nearly a decade ago, the era of optogenetics was ushered in with the development of channelrhodopsins, light-activated ion channels that can, with the flick of a switch, instantaneously turn on neurons in which they are genetically expressed. What has lagged behind, however, is the ability to use light to inactivate neurons with an equal level of reliability and efficiency. Now, Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) scientists have used an analysis of channelrhodopsin's molecular structure to guide a series of genetic mutations to the ion channel that grant the power to silence neurons with an unprecedented level of control.

The new structurally engineered channel at last gives neuroscientists the tools to both activate and inactivate neurons in deep brain structures using dim pulses of externally projected light. HHMI early career scientist Karl Deisseroth and his colleagues at Stanford University published their findings April 25, 2014 in the journal Science. "We're excited about this increased light sensitivity of inhibition in part because we think it will greatly enhance work in large-brained organisms like rats and primates," he says.

First discovered in unicellular green algae in 2002, channelrhodopsins function as photoreceptors that guide the microorganisms' movements in response to light. In a landmark 2005 study, Deisseroth and his colleagues described a method for expressing the light-sensitive proteins in mouse neurons. By shining a pulse of blue light on those neurons, the researchers showed they could reliably induce the ion channel at channelrhodopsin's core to open up, allowing positively charged ions to rush into the cell and trigger action potentials. Channelrhodopsins have since been used in hundreds of research projects investigating the neurobiology of everything from cell dynamics to cognitive functions.

A few years later came the deployment of halorhodopsins, light-sensitive proteins selective for the negatively charged ion chloride. These proteins, derived from halobacteria, provided researchers with a tool for the light-controlled inactivation of neurons. A major limitation of these proteins, however, is their inefficiency. Unlike channelrhodopsin, halorhodopsin is an ion pump, meaning that only one chloride ion moves across the neuron's membrane per photon of light. "What that translates into is you get partial inhibition," Deisseroth says. "You can inhibit neurons, but in the living animal it's not always complete."

Searches for a naturally occurring light-sensitive channel with a pore permeable to negatively charged ions have come up empty handed. "We searched," Deisseroth says. "We did big genomic searches and found many interesting channelrhodopsins and lots of pumps, but we never found an inhibitory channel in nature."

The team's fruitless exploration led them to try modifying the molecular structure of channelrhodopsin so that its pore would shuttle negative ions into the cell. "To do that you need to know what the channel pore looks like at the angstrom level," Deisseroth says. "What we really needed was the high-resolution crystal structure." In 2012, working with a group in Japan, Deisseroth and his colleagues captured the structure of a chimera of channelrhodopsin called C1C2 using X-ray crystallography.

A molecular analysis of channelrhodopsin's pore suggested that swapping out certain negatively charged amino acid residues lining the pore with positive residues could reverse the electrostatic potential of the channel, making it more conductive to negatively charged ions such as chloride. To achieve this molecular switcheroo, the researchers performed dozens of single site-directed mutations. Several mutations conferred selectivity for chloride, but the channels failed to conduct current. So, the team screened hundreds of combinations of mutations. "In a systematic process we found first a combination of four mutations, and then a group of five mutations, that seemed to change selectivity," says Deisseroth. "We put those together into a nine-fold mutated channel and that one, amazingly, was chloride selective."

Not only does the new channel -- dubbed iC1C2 for "inhibitory C1C2" -- allow the selective passage of chloride ions, it greatly reduces the likelihood of action potentials by making the neuron more "leaky," a function not possible in ion pumps like halorhodopsin.

Deisseroth's team made a final mutation to a cysteine residue in iC1C2 that makes the channel both bi-stable and orders of magnitude more sensitive to light. When activated by blue light, the mutated channels remain open for up to minutes at a time, while exposing the channels to red light makes them close quickly. This level of long-term control is useful in developmental studies where events play out over minutes to hours. The long channel open times also mean that neurons can essentially integrate chloride currents over longer time scales and, therefore, weaker light can be used to inhibit the neurons. Increased light sensitivity translates to less light-induced damage to neural tissue, the ability to reach deep brain structures, and the possibility of controlling brain functions that involve large regions of the brain.

"This is something we've sought for many years and it's really the culmination of many streams of work in the lab -- crystal structure work, mutational work, behavioral work -- all of which have come together here," Deisseroth says.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI). Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. Andre Berndt, Soo Yeun Lee, Charu Ramakrishnan, and Karl Deisseroth. Structure-Guided Transformation of Channelrhodopsin into a Light-Activated Chloride Channel. Science, 25 April 2014 DOI: 10.1126/science.1252367

Cite This Page:

Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI). "Scientists build new 'off switch' to shut down neural activity." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 24 April 2014. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/04/140424140905.htm>.
Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI). (2014, April 24). Scientists build new 'off switch' to shut down neural activity. ScienceDaily. Retrieved August 2, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/04/140424140905.htm
Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI). "Scientists build new 'off switch' to shut down neural activity." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/04/140424140905.htm (accessed August 2, 2014).

Share This




More Health & Medicine News

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Texas Quintuplets Head Home

Texas Quintuplets Head Home

Reuters - US Online Video (Aug. 1, 2014) After four months in the hospital, the first quintuplets to be born at Baylor University Medical Center head home. Linda So reports. Video provided by Reuters
Powered by NewsLook.com
Ebola Patient Coming to U.S. for Treatment

Ebola Patient Coming to U.S. for Treatment

Reuters - US Online Video (Aug. 1, 2014) A U.S. aid worker infected with Ebola while working in West Africa will be treated in a high security ward at Emory University in Atlanta. Linda So reports. Video provided by Reuters
Powered by NewsLook.com
Ebola Vaccine Might Be Coming, But Where's It Been?

Ebola Vaccine Might Be Coming, But Where's It Been?

Newsy (Aug. 1, 2014) Health officials are working to fast-track a vaccine — the West-African Ebola outbreak has killed more than 700. But why didn't we already have one? Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Study Links Certain Birth Control Pills To Breast Cancer

Study Links Certain Birth Control Pills To Breast Cancer

Newsy (Aug. 1, 2014) Previous studies have made the link between birth control and breast cancer, but the latest makes the link to high-estrogen oral contraceptives. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:

More Coverage


Scientists Make Switching Off Cells With Light as Easy as Switching Them on

Apr. 24, 2014 In 2005, a scientist discovered how to switch brain cells on or off with light pulses by using special proteins from microbes to pass electrical current into neurons. Since then, research teams ... read more
from the past week

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile: iPhone Android Web
Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins