Tuesday, 10 January, 2012
Light now in sight
Control of a “blind” neuroreceptor with an optical switch
When nerve cells communicate with one another, specialized receptor molecules on their surfaces play a central role in relaying signals between them. A collaborative venture involving teams of chemists based at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität (LMU) in Munich and the University of California in Berkeley has now succeeded in converting an intrinsically “blind” receptor molecule into a photoreceptor. They achieved this feat by using molecular genetic techniques to attach what amounts to a light-controlled chemical “switch” to a macromolecular receptor that is normally activated by the endogenous neurotransmitter acetylcholine. Dirk Trauner, Professor of Chemical Biology and Genetics at LMU Munich, who played a leading role in the project, hopes that the synthetic construct will help to elucidate the precise roles of the natural receptor in the brain. Indeed, he says that it might ultimately be possible to use such synthetic photoreceptors to restore sight to patients suffering from certain forms of blindness (Nature Chemistry, 8.1.2012).