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Concept: Channelrhodopsin


A specific memory is thought to be encoded by a sparse population of neurons. These neurons can be tagged during learning for subsequent identification and manipulation. Moreover, their ablation or inactivation results in reduced memory expression, suggesting their necessity in mnemonic processes. However, the question of sufficiency remains: it is unclear whether it is possible to elicit the behavioural output of a specific memory by directly activating a population of neurons that was active during learning. Here we show in mice that optogenetic reactivation of hippocampal neurons activated during fear conditioning is sufficient to induce freezing behaviour. We labelled a population of hippocampal dentate gyrus neurons activated during fear learning with channelrhodopsin-2 (ChR2) and later optically reactivated these neurons in a different context. The mice showed increased freezing only upon light stimulation, indicating light-induced fear memory recall. This freezing was not detected in non-fear-conditioned mice expressing ChR2 in a similar proportion of cells, nor in fear-conditioned mice with cells labelled by enhanced yellow fluorescent protein instead of ChR2. Finally, activation of cells labelled in a context not associated with fear did not evoke freezing in mice that were previously fear conditioned in a different context, suggesting that light-induced fear memory recall is context specific. Together, our findings indicate that activating a sparse but specific ensemble of hippocampal neurons that contribute to a memory engram is sufficient for the recall of that memory. Moreover, our experimental approach offers a general method of mapping cellular populations bearing memory engrams.

Concepts: Psychology, Memory, Hippocampus, Dentate gyrus, Neurogenesis, Granule cell, Entorhinal cortex, Channelrhodopsin


Genetically encoded calcium indicators (GECIs) are powerful tools for systems neuroscience. Here we describe red, single-wavelength GECIs, “RCaMPs,” engineered from circular permutation of the thermostable red fluorescent protein mRuby. High-resolution crystal structures of mRuby, the red sensor RCaMP, and the recently published red GECI R-GECO1 give insight into the chromophore environments of the Ca-bound state of the sensors and the engineered protein domain interfaces of the different indicators. We characterized the biophysical properties and performance of RCaMP sensors and in , larvae, and larval zebrafish. Further, we demonstrate 2-color calcium imaging both within the same cell (registering mitochondrial and somatic [Ca]) and between two populations of cells: neurons and astrocytes. Finally, we perform integrated optogenetics experiments, wherein neural activation channelrhodopsin-2 (ChR2) or a red-shifted variant, and activity imaging RCaMP or GCaMP, are conducted simultaneously, with the ChR2/RCaMP pair providing independently addressable spectral channels. Using this paradigm, we measure calcium responses of naturalistic and ChR2-evoked muscle contractions in crawling . We systematically compare the RCaMP sensors to R-GECO1, in terms of action potential-evoked fluorescence increases in neurons, photobleaching, and photoswitching. R-GECO1 displays higher Ca affinity and larger dynamic range than RCaMP, but exhibits significant photoactivation with blue and green light, suggesting that integrated channelrhodopsin-based optogenetics using R-GECO1 may be subject to artifact. Finally, we create and test blue, cyan, and yellow variants engineered from GCaMP by rational design. This engineered set of chromatic variants facilitates new experiments in functional imaging and optogenetics.

Concepts: Nervous system, Neuron, Neuroscience, Green, Permutation, Image sensor, Channelrhodopsin, Cyan


Optogenetic techniques allow intracellular manipulation of Ca(++) by illumination of light-absorbing probe molecules such as channelrhodopsins and melanopsins. The consequences of optogenetic stimulation would optimally be recorded by non-invasive optical methods. However, most current optical methods for monitoring Ca(++) levels are based on fluorescence excitation that can cause unwanted stimulation of the optogenetic probe and other undesirable effects such as tissue autofluorescence. Luminescence is an alternate optical technology that avoids the problems associated with fluorescence. Using a new bright luciferase, we here develop a genetically encoded Ca(++) sensor that is ratiometric by virtue of bioluminescence resonance energy transfer (BRET). This sensor has a large dynamic range and partners optimally with optogenetic probes. Ca(++) fluxes that are elicited by brief pulses of light to cultured cells expressing melanopsin and to neurons-expressing channelrhodopsin are quantified and imaged with the BRET Ca(++) sensor in darkness, thereby avoiding undesirable consequences of fluorescence irradiation.

Concepts: Fluorescence, Optics, Light, Luminescence, Förster resonance energy transfer, Bioluminescence, Channelrhodopsin, Space probe


Some hereditary diseases, such as retinitis pigmentosa, lead to blindness due to the death of photoreceptors, though the rest of the visual system might be only slightly affected. Optogenetics is a promising tool for restoring vision after retinal degeneration. In optogenetics, light-sensitive ion channels (“channelrhodopsins”) are expressed in neurons so that the neurons can be activated by light. Currently existing variants of channelrhodopsin - engineered for use in neurophysiological research - do not necessarily support the goal of vision restoration optimally, due to two factors: First, the nature of the light stimulus is fundamentally different in “optogenetic vision” compared to “optogenetic neuroscience”. Second, the retinal target neurons have specific properties that need to be accounted for, e.g. most retinal neurons are non-spiking. In this study, by using a computational model, we investigate properties of channelrhodopsin that might improve successful vision restoration. We pay particular attention to the operational brightness range and suggest strategies that would allow optogenetic vision over a wider intensity range than currently possible, spanning the brightest 5 orders of naturally occurring luminance. We also discuss the biophysical limitations of channelrhodopsin, and of the expressing cells, that prevent further expansion of this operational range, and we suggest design strategies for optogenetic tools which might help overcoming these limitations. Furthermore, the computational model used for this study is provided as an interactive tool for the research community.

Concepts: Physics, Action potential, Neuroscience, Retina, Retinitis pigmentosa, Channelrhodopsin, Optogenetics, Radiance


G protein-coupled receptor (GPCR) signalling, including that involving apelin (APLN) and its receptor APLNR, is known to be important in vascular development. How this ligand-receptor pair regulates the downstream signalling cascades in this context remains poorly understood. Here, we show that mice with Apln, Aplnr or endothelial-specific Aplnr deletion develop profound retinal vascular defects, which are at least in part due to dysregulated increase in endothelial CXCR4 expression. Endothelial CXCR4 is negatively regulated by miR-139-5p, whose transcription is in turn induced by laminar flow and APLN/APLNR signalling. Inhibition of miR-139-5p in vivo partially phenocopies the retinal vascular defects of APLN/APLNR deficiency. Pharmacological inhibition of CXCR4 signalling or augmentation of the miR-139-5p-CXCR4 axis can ameliorate the vascular phenotype of APLN/APLNR deficient state. Overall, we identify an important microRNA-mediated GPCR crosstalk, which plays a key role in vascular development.

Concepts: Gene, Signal transduction, Chemokine, G protein-coupled receptor, Metabotropic glutamate receptor, Channelrhodopsin


Recent findings suggest that memory allocation to specific neurons (i.e., neuronal allocation) in the amygdala is not random, but rather the transcription factor cAMP-response element binding protein (CREB) modulates this process, perhaps by regulating the transcription of channels that control neuronal excitability. Here, optogenetic studies in the mouse lateral amygdala (LA) were used to demonstrate that CREB and neuronal excitability regulate which neurons encode an emotional memory. To test the role of CREB in memory allocation, we overexpressed CREB in the lateral amygdala to recruit the encoding of an auditory-fear conditioning (AFC) memory to a subset of neurons. Then, post-training activation of these neurons with Channelrhodopsin-2 was sufficient to trigger recall of the memory for AFC, suggesting that CREB regulates memory allocation. To test the role of neuronal excitability in memory allocation, we used a step function opsin (SFO) to transiently increase neuronal excitability in a subset of LA neurons during AFC. Post-training activation of these neurons with Volvox Channelrhodopsin-1 was able to trigger recall of that memory. Importantly, our studies show that activation of the SFO did not affect AFC by either increasing anxiety or by strengthening the unconditioned stimulus. Our findings strongly support the hypothesis that CREB regulates memory allocation by modulating neuronal excitability.

Concepts: Alzheimer's disease, DNA, Psychology, Transcription factor, Memory, Emotion, Emotion and memory, Channelrhodopsin


Optogenetic stimulation allows activation of cells with high spatial and temporal precision. Here we show direct optogenetic stimulation of skeletal muscle from transgenic mice expressing the light-sensitive channel Channelrhodopsin-2 (ChR2). Largest tetanic contractions are observed with 5-ms light pulses at 30 Hz, resulting in 84% of the maximal force induced by electrical stimulation. We demonstrate the utility of this approach by selectively stimulating with a light guide individual intralaryngeal muscles in explanted larynges from ChR2-transgenic mice, which enables selective opening and closing of the vocal cords. Furthermore, systemic injection of adeno-associated virus into wild-type mice provides sufficient ChR2 expression for optogenetic opening of the vocal cords. Thus, direct optogenetic stimulation of skeletal muscle generates large force and provides the distinct advantage of localized and cell-type-specific activation. This technology could be useful for therapeutic purposes, such as restoring the mobility of the vocal cords in patients suffering from laryngeal paralysis.

Concepts: Gene, Gene expression, Energy, Muscle, Muscular system, Human voice, Larynx, Channelrhodopsin


Manipulation of neuronal activity through genetically targeted actuator molecules is a powerful approach for studying information flow in the brain. In these approaches the genetically targeted component, a receptor or a channel, is activated either by a small molecule (chemical genetics) or by light from a physical source (optogenetics). We developed a hybrid technology that allows control of the same neurons by both optogenetic and chemical genetic means. The approach is based on engineered chimeric fusions of a light-generating protein (luciferase) to a light-activated ion channel (channelrhodopsin). Ionic currents then can be activated by bioluminescence upon activation of luciferase by its substrate, coelenterazine (CTZ), as well as by external light. In cell lines, expression of the fusion of Gaussia luciferase to Channelrhodopsin-2 yielded photocurrents in response to CTZ. Larger photocurrents were produced by fusing the luciferase to Volvox Channelrhodopsin-1. This version allowed chemical modulation of neuronal activity when expressed in cultured neurons: CTZ treatment shifted neuronal responses to injected currents and sensitized neurons to fire action potentials in response to subthreshold synaptic inputs. These luminescent channelrhodopsins - or luminopsins - preserve the advantages of light-activated ion channels, while extending their capabilities. Our proof-of-principle results suggest that this novel class of tools can be improved and extended in numerous ways.

Concepts: DNA, Protein, Neuron, Gene expression, Molecule, Action potential, Membrane potential, Channelrhodopsin


Vertebrate rhodopsin (Rh) contains 11-cis-retinal as a chromophore to convert light energy into visual signals. On absorption of light, 11-cis-retinal is isomerized to all-trans-retinal, constituting a one-way reaction that activates transducin (Gt) followed by chromophore release. Here we report that bovine Rh, regenerated instead with a six-carbon-ring retinal chromophore featuring a C(11)=C(12) double bond locked in its cis conformation (Rh6mr), employs an atypical isomerization mechanism by converting 11-cis to an 11,13-dicis configuration for prolonged Gt activation. Time-dependent UV-vis spectroscopy, HPLC, and molecular mechanics analyses revealed an atypical thermal reisomerization of the 11,13-dicis to the 11-cis configuration on a slow timescale, which enables Rh6mr to function in a photocyclic manner similar to that of microbial Rhs. With this photocyclic behavior, Rh6mr repeatedly recruits and activates Gt in response to light stimuli, making it an excellent candidate for optogenetic tools based on retinal analog-bound vertebrate Rhs. Overall, these comprehensive structure-function studies unveil a unique photocyclic mechanism of Rh activation by an 11-cis-to-11,13-dicis isomerization.

Concepts: Spectroscopy, Photon, Electromagnetic radiation, Absorption spectroscopy, Ultraviolet-visible spectroscopy, Retinal, Channelrhodopsin, Visual phototransduction


Non-invasive remote control technologies designed to manipulate neural functions have been long-awaited for the comprehensive and quantitative understanding of neuronal network in the brain as well as for the therapy of neurological disorders. Recently, it has become possible for the neuronal activity to be optically manipulated using biological photo-reactive molecules such as channelrhodopsin (ChR)-2. However, ChR2 and its relatives are mostly reactive to visible light, which does not effectively penetrate through biological tissues. In contrast, near-infrared (NIR) light (650-1450 nm) penetrates deep into the tissues because biological systems are almost transparent to light within this so-called ‘imaging window’. Here we used lanthanide nanoparticles (LNPs), composed of rare-earth elements, as luminous bodies to activate ChRs since they absorb low-energy NIR light to emit high-energy visible light (up-conversion). Here, we created a new type of optogenetic system which consists of the donor LNPs and the acceptor ChRs. The NIR laser irradiation emitted visible light from LNPs, then induced the photo-reactive responses in the near-by cells that expressed ChRs. However, there remains room for large improvements in the energy efficiency of the LNP-ChR system.

Concepts: Nervous system, Brain, Electromagnetic radiation, Human brain, Infrared, Visible spectrum, Channelrhodopsin, Cerium