The technique optogenetics has won an abundance of prestigious awards and yet most people, outside the realm of neuroscience, do not know what it is or why it is useful. Optogenetics poses a solution to a difficult challenge within neuroscience research. The complexity of the brain has been a huge pitfall in the field. For several years, scientists have been puzzled as to how to manipulate one type of cell in the brain while simultaneously leaving all of the others unaltered. Optogenetics elegantly combines optics and genetics to monitor neurons to overcome this issue.
In 2010, optogenetics was named the Nature Method of the Year ("Method of the Year 2010"). While this technique and the researchers who contributed to its development are largely being recognized now, the theory behind optogenetics has existed for several years. In fact, opsins, proteins that undergo conformational changes when exposed to light, had been of interest to many researchers since the 1970s.
In 2002, Gero Miesenböck’s lab modified neurons and showed that they could be stimulated by light. They employed a multi-protein system. Miesenböck is considered the founder of what is now known as optogenetics. Also in 2002, Ernst Bamberg, Georg Nagel, Peter Hegemann, and their colleagues published a paper reporting that they discovered an opsin that drives phototaxis, the movement in response to light, in green algae. They suggested that this protein, channelrhodopsin-2, would be useful to manipulate membrane potential, which essentially determines whether a neuron fires or not. These papers influenced the actions of the Deisseroth lab in the early 2000s (Boyden 2011).
Amongst the researchers credited for their pioneering work in optogenetics is Edward Boyden. In 2005, Boyden, then a PhD student at Stanford, published a groundbreaking paper on optogenetics titled “Millisecond-timescale genetically targeted optical control of neural activity”. Boyden started this project while collaborating with Karl Deisseroth, who was an MD-PhD student when they initially started talking about neural control. They were both working in the Tsien Lab at the time. Later on, Deisseroth started his own lab and so Boyden has explained that the work was split between the two labs. Feng Zhang joined Deisseroth’s lab and the three worked with Ernst Bamberg and Georg Nagel to eventually publish this paper (Boyden 2011). While Boyden’s paper was not the first example of optogenetics, their team is often credited for creating a useful, widely applied approach to optogenetics. Boyden was able to create an approach that did not involve a multi-protein system and he also employed a system that was faster than that of Miesenböck (Boyden 2005).
What is optogenetics anyways?
In 2005, Boyden et al. published a paper on their single-component optogenetic system, the first of its kind. They took Channelrhododopsin-2 (ChR2), a light-gated cation channel, from the unicellular green alga Chlamydomonas reinhardtii....