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Light-Smelling Mice

November 17, 2010

Mice that can smell light help neurobiologists study olfaction.


Smelling the light…I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

To better understand the biology of smell, researchers in the U.S. and India genetically engineered mice to smell light. That might sound like an odd strategy. But according to neuroscientist Florin Albeanu of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, it’s a sensible way to study how brain cells react to odors. That’s because actual odor samples are hard to control in the lab.

FLORIN ALBEANU (Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory):
If you are to use light, however, you can focus it much better. So you can activate only small subsets of neurons spatially, and also do that at very good, almost millisecond, resolution.

The mice had light-reactive proteins built into their brains’ olfactory systems, and they sniffed and tracked light like they were smelling cheese. It’s just one of many recent examples of optogenetics, the emerging science of making cells respond to light to study how they work. I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.