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'Blind' cells see the light; maybe someday humans will, too

The chemical was also designed to be sensitive to light -- when hit with long-wavelength ultraviolet light (390 nanometer wavelength), the tether kinks and shortens, pulling the plug and letting potassium out of the cell. Green light (500 nanometer wavelength), on the other hand, makes the chemical tether straight again, replugging the channel pore. They refer to the altered channel as a synthetic photoisomerizable azobenzene-regulated K (SPARK) channel, where K is the chemical signal for potassium.

Apart from possible therapeutic applications, or tricks such as giving sight to sightless organisms, the technique allows neuroscientists to ask more basic questions, Trauner said.

"Once we insert this artificial light-sensitive channel in a nerve cell, it opens an extra potassium channel that we can manipulate remotely to hyperpolarize the cell and silence it," Trauner said. "By selectively silencing neurons in a complex network of neurons, all of them talking to one another, we can try to figure out who talks to whom."

These potassium channels also can be made sensitive to molecules instead of light, so that a nerve cell could be turned on or off by DNA or heavy metals, for example. Kramer and Trauner are most excited about the possibility of artificial vision, however.

"We created a method for making light-regulated channels that are stably light sensitive, responding rapidly and reliably for hours," Kramer said. "Now, we're trying it in eyeballs."

To achieve the same trick in a living eye, Kramer will use a virus, such as the adeno-associated virus that is commonly used for experimental gene therapy, to carry the mutated channel genes into retinal ganglion cells. The viruses are injected directly into the vitreous or liquid center of the eye, where they have easy access to ganglion cells.

Kramer noted several problems with the approach, but possible fixes, too. For one, not all retinal ganglion cells are alike. Some are
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Contact: Robert Sanders
rsanders@berkeley.edu
510-643-6998
University of California - Berkeley
21-Nov-2004


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