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Paralyzing light turns worms blue

November 5, 2009

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Experimenting with light, molecules and worms, SFU scientists are inching closer to altering and possibly improving how biological processes can be controlled.

Led by Neil Branda—an SFU chemist, Canada Research Chair and executive director of 4D LABS—the research team has fused biochemistry and photochemistry to paralyze and un-paralyze tiny worms known as C. elegans.

Branda and doctoral student Usama Al-Altar created a photo-responsive dye that they fed to worms raised in the lab of SFU geneticist and Canada Research Chair, David Baillie.

Under a fluorescence microscope, Branda and Al-Altar could see that the colourless transparent worms had taken up the dye. When the dye-fed worms were struck by ultraviolet light they turned blue and were paralyzed.

But when the scientists zapped the motionless worms with visible light most of them awoke, regained movement and became colourless again. Some, however, died as a result of the experiment.

"The worms turn blue because light triggers the photo-reaction of the dye, which looks blue," explains Branda. "The worms are paralyzed by this form of the dye, we think, because it interferes with some electron transport system that controls movement."

The researchers say the worms regain motion when they use visible light because the dye’s photo-responsive behaviour is reversible.

"This is a new molecular tool for studying cells and possibly, much further down the research road, a way of turning off and on biological processes without using invasive drugs and surgery," explains Branda.

SFU’s Community Trust Endowment Fund is financing the five-year project, launched in 2006.

4D LABS, a $40-million SFU research centre largely funded by the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI), is using remotely controlled designer molecules to create a new generation of medical and energy-saving technologies.

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