Optogenetics: the algae that started it all

It may seem like science fiction, but with optogenetics scientists can control the behaviour of animals by simply shining a light into their brains. And believe it or not this technology began… in algae! These single-celled plants are powered by the sun and contain built-in light detectors to control their behaviour. This discovery, and the isolation of the light sensitive protein that is responsible, led to the birth of the science we now call optogenetics. I went to see Cambridge University’s Otti Croze and Kyriacos Leptos to try to catch some of these incredible life-forms…

  • The algae Chlamydomonas Reinhardtii are invisible to the naked eye at around one hundreth of a millimetre or one tenth of the width of a human hair
  • Chlamydomonas contain a light-sensitive protein called channelrhodopsin which triggers the algae to swim using tiny arms called flagella
  • They are phototactic which means that they move towards light which they need to photosynthesise and survive
  • By introducing the light-sensitive protein into nerve cells in the brain scientists can use it as an on/off switch to control the cells by shining light onto them

You can listen to the full interview for the Naked Scientists here.



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