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Rice University just democratized optogenetics with an open-source platform

A breakthrough bioengineering method just got a lot more accessible thanks to a team at Rice University. Graduate student Karl Gerhardt, Professor Jeff Tabor, and students in Tabor’s lab have created the Light Plate Apparatus (LPA), the simplest and most inexpensive optogenetics platform available.

Optogenetics is a relatively new research technique that uses light to control genetically engineered cells. By modifying the cells to contain certain photoreceptors, scientists are able to regulate, monitor, and measure their activity — particularly the firing of neurons — even in live organisms.

“These breakthroughs have revolutionized how neuroscientists study the link between neuron function and behavior,” Tabor told Digital Trends. “In the last several years, there has been an explosion of engineered photoreceptors to control non-neuronal processes, such as gene expression, in a wide range of model organisms such as bacteria, yeast, and mammalian tissue culture cells. Much like neuroscience, these tools promise to revolutionize our understanding of how biochemical networks control the cell — the fundamental unit of life.”

“We believe the LPA will enable virtually any biological laboratory to perform cutting edge optogenetics experiments with ease.”

While working with bacteria in Tabor’s lab, Gerhardt and his team lacked flexible and easy-to-use optogenetics instruments suited for non-neural study. “All of the instruments that had previously been published were mostly cobbled together in individual laboratories for specific photoreceptors, organisms, and experiments and then abandoned,” Tabor says. “They were also either closed source, expensive, or lacked documentation that would enable other groups to build them in their own laboratories.”

So Gerhardt decided to create an instrument for his own purpose — and make it open source.

The LPA is compatible with all genetically engineered photoreceptors in all non-neural model organisms, according to Tabor. The hardware is “plug and play,” — or perhaps print and play — meaning there’s little assembly required. The software can be downloaded for free and set up in under a day, even by a non-expert. The final cost is just $150 for users with a 3D printer or under $400 for those without.

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“Over the years, many biologists have approached us and said they would love to incorporate optogenetics into their research,” Tabor says, “but [they] don’t have the know how to build the necessary optical hardware. We believe the LPA will enable virtually any biological laboratory to perform cutting-edge optogenetics experiments with ease. This could transform our understanding of the biochemical networks that regulate the cell and have applications in optimizing pathways for biotechnology.”

Almost a dozen international research groups have already printed and deployed LPAs, according to Tabor, with more to come. A paper describing the platform was published last week in Scientific Reports (A Nature Publishing Group open-access journal).