In a now famous experiment, researchers at UCSF's QB3 Center were able to turn the organisms in Petri dishes into a kind of biological film all by attaching a light sensing gene to their natural pigmentation cells.
"Because we engineered it to react to light, we can project that image onto the plate, and the bacteria sense that image and produce a photograph," said Chris Voight from QB3.
Now a team drawn from three different labs within QB3 are working together to advance that same light sensing technology toward a far more ambitious application, literally controlling the movement of human cells.
"For example, can we design cells that will chase after signals that are unique to cancer, so they can find tumors and kill them?" said QB3 Cell Propulsion Lab Director Wendell Lim, PhD.
Lim said the light-sensing protein is taken from plants. It's then engineered into a mouse cell, in the specific neural pathway that controls motion. By shining light on the cell, researchers can guide it to move in one direction or another.
"It's kind of like using a laser pointer, the cat chases the light, we can make the cells chase the light," said Lim, PhD.
Researchers are able to shine the various wavelengths of light and watch the reaction at the same time, using a special telescope developed in Orion Weiner's lab, he is the third member of the team.
"For the first time we can follow living signals with cells. This scope allows us to manipulate info in cells," said Weiner.
Besides cancer, the QB3 team believes a long-term goal might be to guide damaged nerve cells in accident victims, to perhaps someday help them to reconnect and even regenerate.
"This is can be very powerful in things like nerve damage and spinal chord injuries where we have problems re-growing nerves. If we can find other signals they respond to, it might be one strategy to help guide something like nerve repair," said Lim, PhD.
We should point out the research is still in its early stages but the QB3 team is excited because the technique appears to be so flexible, that it works in many different types of cells and organisms.