April 21 (UPI) -- In a new study, scientists used light to precisely control gene expression.
Using light pulses instead of electric stimuli, a team of researchers at the University of Colorado, Duke University and University of Helsinki turned the expression of specific genes on and off in mammalian cell cultures. The scientists also used light signals to control intracellular protein levels.
"The research carried out in zebrafish unit of the University of Helsinki showed that in addition to cell cultures, these optogenetic tools worked also in living tissues," research fellow Jari Rossi said in a news release.
Researchers believe the new gene-manipulation technology has great potential as a medical treatment tool. Scientists are preparing to use the optogenetic methods as part of a clinical trial for the treatment of retinitis pigmentosa, a vision disorder.
"Although the medical applications utilizing light regulated gene expression are in the distant future, the first applications will be probably found among life science basic research areas which are in the need of accurate control of gene function," Rossi said.
Rossi is currently employing optogenetic techniques in studies of obesity and diabetes.
Because light has proven a precise and efficient manipulator of cellular and genetic functions, Rossi believes optogenetic technologies could also be used to improve pharmaceutical production methods.
Rossi and his colleagues detailed their latest breakthrough in the journal Nucleic Acids Research.