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‘Tomato’ red molecule reports on neuronal activity

by  /  13 June 2012

This article is more than five years old. Autism research — and science in general — is constantly evolving, so older articles may contain information or theories that have been reevaluated since their original publication date.

Crimson stems: A red molecule that fluoresces when neurons send chemical messages overlaps at active junctions (for example, 3 in the picture above) with a green indicator that lights up when partner neurons receive signals.

A pH-sensitive red fluorescent molecule allows researchers to simultaneously monitor two different types of neuronal activity, according to a study published 27 May in Nature Neuroscience1.

Existing indicators of neuronal activity are all derivatives of the green fluorescent protein (GFP), meaning that they look the same under a microscope and so cannot discriminate between simultaneous cellular activities.

In the new study, researchers engineered a new molecule, dubbed pHTomato, that emits light in the red spectrum and does not overlap with GFP. The molecule is pH-sensitive, emitting more fluorescence in a neutral environment than in an acidic one.

The researchers then looked at populations of cells expressing both the pHTomato/VAMP2 fusion protein and a GFP indicator that lights up at the signal-receiving ends of activated neurons. Yellow spots, which result when the red and green colors overlap, indicate active synapses.

The researchers also expressed pHTomato in neurons that make a variant of a light-sensitive membrane protein called channel-rhodopsin (ChR) that responds to green light. A technique called optogenetics enables researchers to manipulate neuronal signaling by activating ChRs with beams of light.

Rays of green light simultaneously activate neuronal signals and excite pHTomato to release red fluorescence. Using green light, researchers can change neuronal activity and immediately see the effects. 


1: Li Y. and R.W. Tsien Nat. Neurosci. Epub ahead of print (2012) PubMed