Using Light to Move Molecules in Living Cells

Using a light-triggered chemical tool, Johns Hopkins scientists report that they have refined a means of moving individual molecules around inside living cells and sending them to exact locations at precise times. This new tool, they say, gives scientists greater command than ever in manipulating single molecules, allowing them to see how molecules in certain cell locations can influence cell behavior and to determine whether cells will grow, die, move or divide. A report on the work was published in the January 12, 2011 issue of the Journal of the American Chemical Society. Studying how just one signaling molecule communicates in various parts of a living cell has posed a challenge for scientists investigating how different interactions influence cell behavior, such as the decision to move, change shape or divide. "By using one magical chemical set off by light, we modified our previous technique for moving molecules around and gained much more control," said Dr. Takanari Inoue, assistant professor of cell biology and member of the Center for Cell Dynamics in the Institute for Basic Biomedical Sciences. "The advantage of using light is that it is very controllable, and by confining the light, we can manipulate communication of molecules in only a tiny region of the cell," he said. Specifically, the Hopkins team designed a way to initiate and spatially restrict the molecular interactions to a small portion of the cell by attaching a light-triggered chemical to a bulky molecule, the bond between which would break when researchers shined a defined beam of ultraviolet light on it. This enabled the chemical to enter the cell and force two different and specific proteins in that cell to mingle when they otherwise wouldn't.
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