Karl Deisseroth has become known for his key role in the development of optogenetics, a technique that allows scientists to turn genes in the brains of living animals ‘on’ or ‘off’ with the flick of a light switch. In 2005, Deisseroth and colleagues used a virus to deliver genes from pondweed into the brains of mice. Once there, these genes directed the production of light-sensitive proteins, called opsins. Inside the brain, opsins sit on the surface of nerve cells and can control the activity of these cells. Scientists can activate opsins – and hence the nerve cells – by shining light down a fibre optic cable. Researchers across the world now use optogenetics to better understand how our brains work. This month Deisseroth’s work was recognised with a ‘Breakthrough Prize’ for fundamental science. He said, “The mysteries of the brain are so deep that, to make progress, we need to take big risks and blind leaps.”
Written by Deborah Oakley
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