Light Could Soon Control Your Genes

Wound healing in process.
(Image : Yaron Fuchs and Samara Brown (NIH))
Wound healing in process. (Image : Yaron Fuchs and Samara Brown (NIH))

Using light to activate a specific gene sounds like something from a science fiction movie, but it’s being developed and will help scientists study specific gene functions.

And one day, it may even help develop better healing technologies.

Researchers from Duke University, led by Charles Gersbach, assistant professor of biomedical engineering, have found a way to activate genes in a single location on a lab dish using light by mixing a flower’s response to sunlight and a bacterium’s viral defense system.

“The light-sensitive interacting proteins exist independently in plants,” explained Gersbach. “What we’ve done is attached the CRISPR and the activator to each of them. This builds on similar systems developed by us and others, but because we’re now using CRISPR to target particular genes, it’s easier, faster, and cheaper than other technologies.”


Image : Duke University

New gene technology using light. (Image: Duke University)

“This technology should allow a scientist to pick any gene on any chromosome and turn it on or off with light, which has the potential to transform what can be done with genetic engineering,” said Lauren Polstein, a Duke Ph.D. student and lead author on the work. “The advantage of doing this with light is we can quickly and easily control when the gene gets turned on or off, and the level to which it is activated by varying the light’s intensity. We can also target where the gene gets turned on by shining the light in specific patterns, for example by passing the light through a stencil.”

“One of the limitations of tissue engineering right now is that typical methods make a chunk of bone, cartilage, or muscle, but that’s not what tissues look like naturally,” said Gersbach. “There are several cell types mixed together, gradients of tissues between interfaces, and blood vessels and neurons that penetrate through them. We want to spatially control where different tissues get made in a cell population, and that way create multi-tissue constructs that potentially better represent normal physiology.”

Charles Gersbach Image :Duke University

Charles Gersbach in his lab. (Image: Duke University)


“It’s possible to illuminate cells through the skin and control what they’re doing, like growing blood vessels or regenerating tissues,” said Gersbach. “Far, far down the road, you could envision the type of device you’d see on Star Trek where you wave a flash light over a wound and it heals. Obviously, that’s not currently possible, but this type of technology that creates much better control over biological systems could move us in that direction.”

There are methods of treating wounds with nanotechnology that have been developed in recent years that will radically change treatment methods. But with this new technique, it could prove to be faster and less expensive than previous advances in the field.


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