It’s the most basic of ways to find out what something does, whether it’s an unmarked circuit breaker or an unidentified gene — flip its switch and see what happens. New remote-control technology may offer biologists a powerful way to do this with cells and genes. A team at Rockefeller University and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute is developing a system that would make it possible to remotely control biological targets in living animals — rapidly, without wires, implants or drugs.
The team describes in the journal Nature Medicine, how it succeeded using electromagnetic waves to turn on insulin production to lower blood sugar in diabetic mice. Their system couples a natural iron storage particle, ferritin, to activate an ion channel called TRPV1 such that when the metal particle is exposed to a radio wave or magnetic field it opens the channel, leading to the activation of an insulin producing gene. Together, the two proteins act as a nano-machine that can be used to trigger gene expression in cells.
Tied together: Researchers experimented with different configurations for their remote control system, and they found the best relies on an iron nanoparticle (blue), which is tethered by a protein (green) to an ion channel (red). Above, all three appear within cell membranes.
“The method allows one to wirelessly control the expression of genes in a living animal and could potentially be used for conditions like hemophilia to control the production of a missing protein. Two key attributes are that the system is genetically encoded and can activate cells remotely and quickly,” says Jeffrey Friedman, Marilyn M. Simpson Professor head of the Laboratory of Molecular Genetics at Rockefeller. “We are now exploring whether the method can also be used to control neural activity as a means for noninvasively modulating the activity of neural circuits.” Friedman and his Rensselaer colleague Jonathan S. Dordick were co-senior researchers on the project.