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Thanks to FundScience for Helping Us Sponsor an Optogenetics Design Project

Thanks to all who donated! The mission of FundScience is to get the public directly involved in funding scientific enterprise, so, of course, where did the $512.20 we raised actually go? Did it dump right into indirect costs? No way! Our organization develops low-cost neurotechnology, and the support of FundScience helped enable the building of an optogenetics prototype for a senior final design project we sponsored at the University of Michigan. What is optogenetics? It’s an exciting technology, developed in the early 2000’s, of stimulating neurons with light. The neurons in fruit flies and mice are modified using genetic engineering techniques, and the creatures have light-sensitive ion channels. It’s a rather useful technology (just ask any neuroscientist), but to date has only been available at advanced research institutions. But because of you, not anymore. We have made preliminary inroads towards making optogenetics a tool even high school students can use!

For our prototype to allow portable demonstrations of optogenetics in transgenic fruit flies, we needed a neuroamplifier, a micromanipulator, a microscope, and LED light controller. Backyard Brains has its own amplifier (the SpikerBox), and we decided to go with an off-the-shelf inexpensive microscope rather than design our own optics. Thus, our design efforts focused on the manipulator, the LED control, and the biological preparation. We worked with five seniors in biomedical engineering (Emily, Zack, Nick, John, and Sharon, all from Southeastern Michigan) over about 12 weeks. We are happy to report we were successful in building a functional prototype that we then tested with scientist Stefan Pulver of Cornell University/University of Cambridge.Here is a picture of the prototype.

On April 17th, we successfully recorded EMG’s (electromyograms) from channelrhodopsin-2 expressing fruit flies using the prototype we built. These flies have ChR expressed in their glutamatergic neurons, and when blue light is flashed upon them, the muscles in their body wall contract. Using the manipulator to place the electrode on the exposed muscle, the microscope to view the dissection, the amplifier to record EMGs, and the LED controller to flash light, we had a fully contained optogenetics rig. Below you can listen to an audio recording of light-evoked EMG. It’s noisy, but you can hear the response!

[audio:|titles=Larva EMG Recording in Response to Blue Light]

Here are the students posing with their invention!

For our second prototype, which we are currently working on, we will increase the stability of the manipulator by combining the y and x-axis with the z-axis of the manipulator. We also need to improve the iPhone application that controls the LED. The biggest weakness of our design is more biological than mechanical; the Drosophila dissection takes expertise to do well. Once the stability improves, we will begin demoing this unit to high schools. We have actually already begun demonstrations of the behavioral responses of transgenic fruit flies to blue light. See below for some investigation by students at Winans Academy in Detroit.

We thank all the donators who contributed to this project, the hard working senior design students, and our colleague Stefan Pulver for providing the fruit flies, time, and expertise. We are bootstrapping the continued development; the work continues! Below is the exact cost breakdown of the use of the funds.


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