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Chemistry Professor Lights Neural Activities with Proteins

By Jiang Li, Contributing Writer

Adam E. Cohen ’01, a professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology and of Physics, uses proteins from the Dead Sea to create visualizations of neural activity and its electrical impulses. He enhances brain cells with these proteins and causes the cells to flash with light.

Cohen has received the 2015 Pure Chemistry award from the American Chemistry Society in recognition of this work on neural imaging, along with related biochemical research that uses light. He is also the winner of various prestigious awards for young scientists, such as the inaugural award of Blavatnik and the 10 most promising young scientists by Popular Science.

Cohen, who has long harbored in interest in brain chemistry and laser experiments, and his group first experimented with proteins of bacteria recovered from the ocean. These ocean-based proteins proved ineffective at facilitating neural imaging. When Cohen’s team searched in the Dead Sea between Israel and Jordan, rather than the ocean, they discovered a single-cell organism that had potentially useful genes.

One major challenge of working with neural activities that happen in the span of one thousandth of a second is building a customized optical system, equipped with sufficiently sensitive cameras, he said. After prototyping hardware and developing computer programs, Cohen and and his team extracted the genes and engineered the proteins.

“It’s called protein engineering but that’s a bit of an exaggeration,” Cohen said. “It’s really protein trial and error.”

Throughout the course of a year, Cohen’s group tried 45 different approaches before finding a successful one. Cohen, who was away from campus when his students tried their 46th approach, recalled a middle-of-the-night phone call that alerted him to the good news.

“That was an exciting moment,” he said.

As a next step, Cohen will apply his lighting methods to neurons in the brains of live animals, in addition to neurons grown in dish plates in the lab.

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