A Roadmap to Success in Photopharmacology

Johannes Broichhagen, James Allen Frank, Dirk Trauner

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

508 Scopus citations


Conspectus Light is a fascinating phenomenon that ties together physics, chemistry, and biology. It is unmatched in its ability to confer information with temporal and spatial precision and has been used to map objects on the scale of tens of nanometers (10-8 m) to light years (1016 m). This information, gathered through super-resolution microscopes or space-based telescopes, is ultimately funneled through the human visual system, which is a miracle in itself. It allows us to see the Andromeda galaxy at night, an object that is 2.5 million light years away and very dim, and ski the next day in bright sunlight at an intensity that is 12 orders of magnitude higher.Human vision is only one of many photoreceptive systems that have evolved on earth and are found in all kingdoms of life. These systems rely on molecular photoswitches, such as retinal or tetrapyrrols, which undergo transient bond isomerizations or bond formations upon irradiation. The set of chromophores that have been employed in Nature for this purpose is surprisingly small. Nevertheless, they control a wide variety of biological functions, which have recently been significantly increased through the rapid development of optogenetics. Optogenetics originated as an effort to control neural function with genetically encoded photoreceptors that use abundant chromophores, in particular retinal. It now covers a variety of cellular functions other than excitability and has revolutionized the control of biological pathways in neuroscience and beyond.Chemistry has provided a large repertoire of synthetic photoswitches with highly tunable properties. Like their natural counterparts, these chromophores can be attached to proteins to effectively put them under optical control. This approach has enabled a new type of synthetic photobiology that has gone under various names to distinguish it from optogenetics. We now call it photopharmacology.Here we trace our involvement in this field, starting with the first light-sensitive potassium channel (SPARK) and concluding with our most recent work on photoswitchable fatty acids. Instead of simply providing a historical account of our efforts, we discuss the design criteria that guided our choice of molecules and receptors. As such, we hope to provide a roadmap to success in photopharmacology and make a case as to why synthetic photoswitches, properly designed and made available through well-planned and efficient syntheses, should have a bright future in biology and medicine.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1947-1960
Number of pages14
JournalAccounts of Chemical Research
Issue number7
StatePublished - Jul 21 2015
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Chemistry


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