Nature methods study: using light to control cell clustering

A new study from engineers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the University of California, Berkeley, pairs light and genetics to give researchers a powerful new tool for manipulating cells. Results of the study, published in the journal Nature Methods, show how blue light can be used as a switch to prompt targeted proteins to accumulate into large clusters.

This process of clustering, or oligomerisation, is commonly employed by nature to turn on or turn off specific signalling pathways used in cells' complex system of communications.

The new study details how this process can be replicated with great precision, giving researchers new capabilities to control and influence the process of oligomerisation and cell signalling.

Ravi Kane, the P K Lashmet professor in the Howard P Isermann department of chemical and biological engineering and faculty member of the Centre for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies at Rensselaer, co-led the study with professor David Schaffer of the department of chemical engineering at the University of California, Berkeley. This study was made possible with support from the US Department of Energy's Office of Basic Energy Science.

''Our study shows a new use for using energy, in this case light, as a tool to understand and control cellular function. In this study, we demonstrated a new method for turning specific cell signaling pathways on and off with spatial and temporal precision, and use this to help better understand the dynamics of the pathway. At the same time, our technique can be used to control certain cell functions,'' Kane and Schaffer said.

Looking ahead, Kane said, it is possible the new process may also one day be able to help optimize cellular function and produce products of interest to energy production, such as biofuels.