Meet the Fellow: Heikki Takala
How Red Light Could Be Used to Cure Diseases - A Finnish-German Cooperation on Optogenetic Tools
Our Fellow Dr. Heikki Takala from Finland and Prof. Andreas Möglich have studied the function of a red light sensing bacterial phytochrome and engineered an optogenetic tool that will likely have numerous end applications in biotechnology, research, and therapy.
What are the foci of your joint research funded by the Fellowship?
The focus of our joint research is on photoreceptor studies and their application as optogenetic tools. In the project funded by the Fellowship, we have studied the function and applicability of a red light sensing bacterial phytochrome. First, we revealed what the biochemical activity of this phytochrome is and how red light affects that. Second, we utilized this knowledge by engineering an optogenetic tool that enables the control of bacterial gene expression with red light. With this tool one can, for example, make cells produce a protein of interest and tune the production level by illuminating them with red and far-red light. This pREDusk tool will likely have numerous end point applications in biotechnology, research, and therapy.
In what way is your work interdisciplinary, and what does interdisciplinarity mean to you in academic work and life?
Our work applies a variety of methods in the fields of structural biology, biochemistry, and cell biology. In addition to basic research, our aim is to apply our results for new purposes that eventually range beyond the field of biological sciences. Therefore, interdisciplinarity plays a big role in our research. I think it is an important aspect of science, as only one discipline cannot provide a comprehensive picture of the subject.
What is in your opinion the future of photoreceptor studies, and in what way can research on photoreceptors contribute to meet the urgent challenges of our time?
Our research studies photoreceptor proteins and applies them as optogenetic tools. We think this research field will have interesting prospects in the future. The ability to control biological events with light has advantages over chemicals and other invasive methods. Red light is tunable, non-toxic, and can be focused inside tissues and thick samples. These traits could enable, for example, ecologically friendly applications in biotechnology and light-controlled therapy through skin. I think that optogenetics and the underlying photoreceptor research has therefore lots of untapped potential.
What does international research mobility mean to you?
International research mobility is a vital part of the research, and the travel restrictions due to the pandemic has underlined this even more. Exchange of ideas and expertise in the form of conferences, meetings, and research visits forms the core of high-quality international research. Research mobility lsoenables the shared use of specialized facilities, which may be missing from individual researchers' laboratories.
And how did the current challenges influence your cooperation?
The cooperation between our laboratories included less mobility periods (i.e. research visits) than proposed. However, by carefully planning the visits and by revising the division of labor between the collaborating laboratories, we were able to conduct our project successfully. Our cooperation was therefore hindered, but not critically restricted, by the pandemic situation.
Heikki Takala works as a group leader at the University of Helsinki and as an Academy of Finland Research Fellow at the University of Jyväskylä. He has studied the structure and function of phytochrome photoreceptors since 2012. His recently established group has a special focus on understanding these photoreceptors and engineering phytochrome-based optogenetic tools.