Stephen Colbert Laser-Robotic Worm? No, It's Alive!

Inducing a worm to lay eggs with laser light from Samuel Lab on Vimeo.

A research group at Harvard University, led by Prof. Samuel has developed a new way to manipulate nerves using lasers, given the cheeky term "CoLBeRT"{reference to Stephen Colbert}. In science terms, CoLBeRT is:

Controlling Locomotion and Behavior in Real Time

Here's how it works. The nematode is a simple organism that contains 302 neurons that can be genetically altered to make a foreign protein sensitive to a certain type of light - such as that coming from a laser. By tuning the laser to a specific wavelength, scientists can manipulate one specific neuron.

Of course, there is a long ways to go before this can be applied to human brains, with more than 100 billion neurons.

If you'll forgive my unscientific term, this dear readers, is very cool.

Like this video? The Samuels group at Harvard has a Vimeo channel. Enjoy!

Detail about the video above:

The nematode C. elegans shown here is expressing Channelrhodopsin in its HSN neurons (Pegl-6::ChR2::GFP). The worm has two HSN neurons that are located in the middle of the worm's body. As the worm swims, a narrow beam of blue light is scanned across the animal from its head to its tail. At frame 8828, the beam of light reaches HSN which induces the worm to lay eggs.


Schematic source.

If you would like to see the original publication in Nature Methods, you can find it here.


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Does Colbert know about this yet? No doubt nematodes will be put on notice soon.

Not sure, but he should be aware! Depends upon who is controlling the nematodes, right?

It is my understanding that the DOD has used versions of this technology for at least the last 9 years or so.

By lark jarvis (not verified) on 22 Jan 2011 #permalink

Interesting. Can you send a link documenting this? To my knowledge, the scientific literature did not report the capability to express foreign proteins in selected neurons until quite recently. Thank you.

This is indeed a very cool piece of technology. Has already been applied quite well in mice, drosophila and zebrafish and now has been extended to worms as well. I like their clever acronym - they are definitely getting a shout-out on the show soon!

I think the ability to express foreign proteins in specific cell types (neurons) has been around for a while. I am not sure if i misunderstood your statement about this being a recent phenomenon. In Drosophila, the Gal4/UAS system (Brand & Perrimon, 1993) has been used for targeted gene expression for a long time now.

There are two back to back papers in this issue reporting optogenetic activation of worm neurons. The Samuel setup seems quite hi-tech and complicated. The other group used an off-the-shelf LCD projector as their source of blue light which i think is very exciting because it really gives researchers a potentially easier method of extending this technology to their own line of work.