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Stanford scientists develop a "remote control" for cellular machinery

A paper appearing today in Science describes a really cool Stanford innovation in molecular biology: a technique that will let scientists turn on proteins inside cells with the flip of a light switch. The new method makes creative use of a naturally-occurring fluorescent protein to illuminate how cells work and is the first instance of optogenetics-type methods being applied to proteins.

Proteins run a huge proportion of cellular machinery including transmitting signals from outside to inside the cell, helping to control how genes are turned on and moving things around inside cells. The new technique will speed studies that document the workings of the cellular machinery and may also help make future stem cell therapies work better. From our press release about the research:

The method involves splicing two pieces of a specific fluorescent protein to other proteins of interest. The resulting hybrids — called fluorescent, light-inducible proteins, or FLIPs — have two interesting features: Not only are they turned on by light, but they also glow less brightly when activated, a change that provides an easy way to sense protein activity.

“It’s sort of like having a garage door opener that also tells you if the garage door is open or closed,” said Michael Lin, MD, PhD, an assistant professor of pediatrics and of bioengineering and the senior author of the paper. “I’m always driving out of my house, closing the garage door, and then wondering after I drive away if it’s shut, so I have to drive back and check.” If garage doors were like FLIPs, Lin would be spared his return trip, since these proteins not only turn on at the flip of a light switch, but also tell an observer that they’re working. “One molecule can tell you where it is and what it's doing,” said Lin.

When I was an undergraduate student in biochemistry, I often wished I could shrink myself down to a few nanometers tall and just watch all the cellular gears working (yes, I'm weird that way). I'm excited about this new development because it gives scientists the first shot at doing that. Well, except for the shrinking part.

Previously: Light-switch seizure control? In a bright new study, researchers show how, Using light to activate memories in mice and Stanford researchers create light-responsive heart cells
Photo by Bods

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