Professor of Neurobiology
Department of Molecular & Cell Biology
(510) 642-9853

Research Expertise and Interest

Ion channel function, synaptic plasticity, neural excitability, synaptic transmission, the synapse


The work in the lab is focused on ion channels and other signaling proteins, and their role in neural excitability, synaptic transmission, and the molecular and functional development of the synapse.

Current Projects

Structure and protein motions of voltage and ligand gated channels. We have developed new methods for studying ion channel structure and protein motion. We label channel proteins on the surface of living cells in a site-directed manner with fluorescent dyes. We detect local protein motion via changes in the microenvironment of the dye in real-time, with sub-millisecond resolution, by measuring fluorescence intensity, wavelength and dye mobility. These optical reports identify "what moves when" in relation to functional events that are synchronized for the channel population and measured with a voltage clamp. In addition to obtaining kinetic maps of protein motion, we use fluorescence resonance energy transfer as a spectroscopic ruler to make structural determinations. This method enables us to view movements of individual segments of the channel protein, in individual subunits, so that the spatial location and role in gating of each domain of the protein can be determined. From measurements of movement and distance we are working to assemble an animated structural model of the conformational rearrangements that activate, open, close and inactivate channels. In addition, we are now beginning to make optical measurements of protein motion on the single channel level. Our work, which began with a voltage-gated K+ channel, is now expanding to other classes of channels that are activated by very different classes of signals, such as ligand binding. Our aim is to discover general principles that enable different kinds of signal transduction apparatus to control the conformation of molecular gates that control ion flux and ion selectivity.

Development of genetically encoded optical sensors of cell signaling. Measuring electrical activity in large numbers of cells with high spatial and temporal resolution is a fundamental problem for the study of neural signaling. To address this problem, we have constructed a novel, genetically-encoded probe that can be used to measure transmembrane voltage in single cells. We fused a modified green fluorescent protein (GFP) into the voltage-sensitive Shaker channel, creating a channel whose voltage-dependent rearrangements induce large changes in the fluorescence of GFP. A genetically manipulable voltage sensor has the advantage that its operating range can be tuned by mutagenesis, and that it may be introduced into an organism and targeted for expression to specific developmental stages, brain regions, cell types, and sub-cellular locations. We are using similar strategies to develop different optical sensors by fusing this GFP to other detector proteins such as channels and receptors. Such sensors can be used to ask specific biological questions about the native role of the detector proteins, or, instead, to report on the signals that activate these proteins. We are using such sensors to determine the role of signaling pathways in Drosophila synapse formation and in several other model synaptic systems.

In Research News

zebra fish brain
July 13, 2017

DARPA has awarded UC Berkeley $21.6 million over four years to create a window into the brain through which researchers — and eventually physicians — can monitor and activate thousands to millions of individual neurons using light.

See caption for full description of graphic.
December 8, 2014

A new genetic therapy developed by UC Berkeley scientists has not only helped blind mice regain light sensitivity sufficient to distinguish flashing from non-flashing lights, but also restored light response to the retinas of dogs, setting the stage for future clinical trials of the therapy in humans. The therapy involves inserting photoswitches into retinal cells that are normally ‘blind.’

September 30, 2014

The National Institutes of Health today announced its first research grants through President Barack Obama’s BRAIN Initiative, including three awards to the University of California, Berkeley, totaling nearly $7.2 million over three years.

September 25, 2014

Two state-of-the-art research areas – nanotech and optogenetics – were the dominant theme last Thursday, Sept. 18, as six researchers from UC Berkeley, UC San Francisco and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory sketched out their teams’ bold plans to jump-start new brain research.

Ehud Isacoff
April 8, 2014

Ehud Isacoff and his colleagues explore the brain at several levels critical to ultimately understand how memories form and what can threaten their demise. He is the Director of Berkeley’s Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute.

October 29, 2010

UC Berkeley neuroscientists have found that when zebrafish larvae see large objects, like leaves or other zebrafish, inhibitory nerve cells fire in the brain to tamp down a prey response. But when the larvae see small, prey-size objects, fewer inhibitory nerve cells fire and the fish quickly responds. This simple neural circuit helps explain the visual filters that enable prey capture.

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