He May Have Invented One of Neuroscience’s Biggest Advances–but You’ve Never Heard of Him

From Scientific American:

So it’s not surprising that the two Americans hailed as inventors of optogenetics are rock stars in the science world. Karl Deisseroth at Stanford University and Ed Boyden at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have collected tens of millions in grants and won millions in prize money in recent years. They’ve stocked their labs with the best equipment and the brightest minds. They’ve been lauded in the media and celebrated at conferences around the world. They’re considered all but certain to win a Nobel Prize.

There’s only one problem with this story:

It just may be that Zhuo-Hua Pan invented optogenetics first.

* * *

Even many neuroscientists have never heard of Pan.

Pan, 60, is a vision scientist at Wayne State University in Detroit who began his research career in his home country of China. He moved to the United States in the 1980s to pursue his PhD and never left. He wears wire-rimmed glasses over a broad nose framed by smile-lines in his cheeks. His colleagues describe him as a pure scientist: modest, dedicated, careful.

Pan was driven by a desire to cure blindness. In the early 2000s, he imagined that putting a light-sensitive protein into the eye could restore vision in the blind—compensating for the death of rods and cones by making other cells light-sensitive.

That was the germ of the idea of optogenetics—taking a protein that converts light into electrical activity and putting it into neurons. That way, scientists could shine light and stimulate the neurons remotely, allowing them to manipulate brain circuits. Others had experimented with trying to make neurons light-sensitive before, but those strategies hadn’t caught on because they lacked the right light-sensitive protein.

That all changed with the first molecular description of channelrhodopsin, published in 2003.

Channelrhodopsin, a protein made by green algae, responds to light by …

Continue Reading