Medical Research Council - London Institute of Medical Sciences

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Optogenetics - light activated genetic manipulation - provides insight into early embryonic development

11 January 2019

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In the earliest stages of life, cells group together and begin to form organs. Cells on the surface of a cluster contract and fold inwards during the first step, called invagination. Understanding what drives this transformation could help prevent disease-causing errors that occasionally occur. To investigate the details, researchers have turned to optogenetics – a technique that uses light mixed with gene tweaking to influence cell behaviour. They used it to limit the levels of myosin-II – a protein involved in the process and known for causing muscle contraction; this stiffened the cells of a fruit fly embryo, preventing invagination (left), while unaltered cells folded inwards like normal (right). This proved one long-standing theory about the process, and handed control of a key step in embryonic development to researchers, who now hope optogenetics might help create and shape artificial tissues, steer tissue development in regenerative medicine, and further explain the mysteries of life’s first steps.

Written by Anthony Lewis

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