© Hector Fellow Academy
15. May 2023
Control­ling neurons with light

Portrait of optoge­net­ics pioneer Peter Hegemann

The new video portrait presents the renowned biophysi­cist and Hector Fellow Peter Hegemann and intro­duces his research activ­i­ties at Humboldt-Univer­sität zu Berlin. In 2015 Peter Hegemann, profes­sor and head of group for Exper­i­men­tal Biophysics, was honored with the Hector Science Award. Since then, he has been a member of the Hector Fellow Academy.

The world's leading expert in photo­bi­ol­ogy is consid­ered a co-founder of optoge­net­ics, which combines methods of optics and genet­ics to non-invasively stimu­late single neurons. His research on algal photore­cep­tors led to the discov­ery of light-depen­dent ion channels. The proteins involved, called "channel rhodopsins," enable precise control of genet­i­cally modified cells by light pulses. "Even if you only do basic research (...) you are happy when a broader appli­ca­tion of these tools emerges" explains Peter Hegemann in the video portrait. This opens up new possi­bil­i­ties for the treat­ment of neuronal diseases. For example, innov­a­tive treat­ment methods for Parkinson's disease are being researched or optical pacemak­ers for the human heart are being developed.

In the Hector Fellow Academy, Peter Hegemann is leading an inter­dis­ci­pli­nary project together with Hector Fellow Karl Leo from the Technis­che Univer­sität Dresden entitled "High-resolu­tion optoge­net­ics with organic light-emitting diodes". The aim of the project is to test novel light-emitting diodes, which can imitate differ­ent colours of light, on the light-sensi­tive proteins and to study signal propa­ga­tion within a neuronal network.

Young researcher Rodrigo Fernan­dez Lahore works in Peter Hegemann's team. His doctoral position was funded by the Hector Fellow Academy. In the video portrait, Rodrigo Fernan­dez Lahore talks about his daily research routine. To study channel rhodopsins, the light-sensi­tive proteins found on the cell membrane of certain algae, he has to prepare the exper­i­ment in many steps in the labora­tory. For example, one of Rodrigo Fernan­dez Lahore's success­ful projects was to vary the proper­ties of channel rhodopsins.

Approach­ing new and origi­nal research topics with courage is a major concern for researcher Peter Hegemann. He says it is a problem to predict future devel­op­ments if one only refers to what is currently happen­ing in research. Hegemann is convinced that really good science is created where something completely new is tried out.

Peter Hegemann is also commit­ted to the dialog between science and the public. He is the organizer of the 2023 sympo­sium of the Hector Fellow Academy entitled "Light in Biology — Photo­syn­the­sis, Visual Processes and Neuronal Appli­ca­tions". This will take place on July 6, 2023 at 6 p.m. at the Langen­beck-Virchow-Haus in Berlin and via livestream.

The Hector Fellow Academy regularly publishes video portraits of the scien­tists in its network. The videos provide insights into the diverse research projects of the Hector Fellows and the young scien­tists. Viewers thus have the oppor­tu­nity to get to know the Hector Fellow Academy better.