29 November 2022

Traffic light for nematodes

Japanese scientists demonstrated remote control of worms

Sergey Vasiliev, Naked Science

Microscopic robots could be very useful for reconnaissance, terrain survey, environmental monitoring, search for victims of disasters. However, it is not easy to "pack" everything you need, including motors, batteries, sensors, antennas and microchips, into a body the size of at least an insect. However, there is an alternative approach: you can use the insects themselves, turning them into controlled cyborgs. Most often, they try to modify cockroaches for this. But scientists from Osaka City University turned to worms. Their paper is published in the journal PNAS (Koyanagi et al., High-performance optical control of GPCR signaling by bistable animal opsins MosOpn3 and LamPP in a molecular property–dependent manner).

The teams of Mitsumasa Koyanagi and Akihisa Terakita used C.elegans nematodes, one of the most popular and deeply studied model organisms. From the DNA of mosquitoes, scientists isolated the genes of a light-sensitive protein, opsin MosOpn3, and then introduced them into the DNA of worms. At the same time, the new gene was not expressed in all cells, but only in nociceptor neurons, which signal the body about damage or other dangerous effects. In response to even weak radiation, MosOpn3 activated nociceptors, forcing nematodes to move actively, trying to avoid a negative stimulus.

Similar work was done with the LamPP protein, the gene of which was isolated from the DNA of lampreys and forced to work in motor neurons. This opsin made it possible to control nematodes due to light of different wavelengths. In response to the appearance of photons in the green part of the spectrum, the animals moved, and when irradiated with ultraviolet light, they stopped in place. Experiments have shown that this can be done many times and the protein system does not degrade over time.


"Both opsins belong to a family of G-protein coupled receptors that can be sensitive to very different types of stimuli, including smell, taste, hormones, neurotransmitters," said Professor Koyanagi. According to him, this will allow using the same approach if it is necessary to integrate other proteins into nematodes so that cyborg worms respond to other types of stimuli besides light.

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