A protein from a marine virus enables light to remotely control muscle contraction

  • Research
Published on February 9, 2024 Updated on February 9, 2024

on the January 22, 2024

Illustration recherche
Illustration recherche

A study, published in January 2024 in Nature Communications, reveals a new aspect of the symbiosis between giant viruses and phytoplankton, and enables a major advance in optogenetics, with applications in basic research and medicine, notably for the treatment of neuromuscular diseases.

In the genome of giant marine viruses, scientists have discovered a family of light-activated proteins (VCRs) capable of regulating cellular calcium, essential for phototaxis in plankton. In animals, the artificial expression of such genes makes it possible to remotely control calcium-dependent muscle contraction via light, independently of any nerve command, and even in the presence of paralyzing drugs. In this way, the movements of genetically modified animals can be controlled remotely and on demand.

The gene in question produces a protein called VCR1. When these VCR1 proteins are exposed to light, they trigger the release of calcium inside the cells. Calcium plays a crucial role in our bodies, particularly in muscle contraction. This is where the magic happens: by inserting this VCR1 gene into animals, in this case xenopus tadpoles, scientists have succeeded in inducing muscle contractions in response to light.
By illuminating these genetically modified tadpoles, the researchers were able to trigger precise movements such as swimming or bending the body. Remarkably, these movements are controlled independently of the tadpoles' nervous system. This means that light can act as a remote control for muscles, opening up fascinating possibilities in biology and medicine.

This discovery represents a major breakthrough in the field of optogenetics, where light is used to manipulate living cells. Imagine the implications: treatments for neuromuscular diseases where muscle control is lost, studies into muscle and nerve function, and even applications in bio-inspired robotics.
But it's not just science that benefits. This research underlines the importance of biodiversity and ocean exploration. Who would have thought that a gene from a virus infecting phytoplankton could one day help us understand and manipulate the workings of the animal body?
In short, this discovery opens up a new chapter in our understanding of life and its possibilities, demonstrating once again that nature still has many secrets to reveal to us.
figure sandoz nature 2024
figure sandoz nature 2024
Ana-Sofia Eria-Oliveira
Figure: Thanks to projects exploring marine biodiversity by collecting samples on a global scale, numerous VCR1 genes have been identified within the genomes of marine viruses infecting phytoplankton. These genes code for proteins capable of initiating calcium signals inside cells when exposed to light. Calcium, a crucial signaling molecule, plays an essential role in many cellular processes, including muscle contraction. Introducing DNA coding for VCR1 into the egg of a xenopus frog enables expression of these light-sensitive proteins in the developed tadpole. When the animal is exposed to light, the VCR1 proteins are activated, triggering internal calcium mobilization, resulting in muscle contraction in the animals.
For further information

Ana-Sofia Eria-Oliveira, Mathilde Folacci, Anne Amandine Chassot, Sandrine Fedou, Nadine Thézé, Dmitrii, Zabelskii, Alexey Alekseev, Ernst Bamberg, Valentin Gordeliy, Guillaume Sandoz* & Michel Vivaudou*.
Hijacking of internal calcium dynamics by intracellularly residing viral rhodopsins. Nature Communication 15, 65 (2024). * Corresponding authors


Dr Guillaume Sandoz - CNRS Research Director- +33 6 04 67 71 77 - Guillaume.SANDOZ@univ-cotedazur.fr
Dr Michel Vivaudou - Research Director CEA - vivaudou.lab@gmail.com