Inside Salk - May 2011 - page 11

For nearly a century, scientists believed that only the photoreceptors
and cones in the retina converted light into electrical signals to the brain. That changed with
Satchidananda Panda
’s discovery of melanopsin, a photoreceptor in the retina that sends signals
to the body’s biological clock and that is only present in a few thousand cells embedded in the retina.
Before the advent of advanced biophotonics at Salk, Panda’s work required lengthy imaging
processes that ultimately didn’t produce the kind of visualization he and his colleagues wanted.
But his research intomelanopsin has evolved along with the expanding capacity of advanced biopho-
tonics at the Institute. With the installation of newmicroscopy technology, Panda changed his research
strategy to work with imaging that became significantlymore precise. “Suddenly,” he says, “we could
go to the biophotonics core and get a beautiful three-dimensional view of the retina—and a nice view
of the brain to see wheremRGCs connect.”
Panda and his collaborators used advanced biophotonics to discover that melanopsin-expressing
retinal ganglion cells, or mRGCs, reach out to visual processing centers in the brain, where they relay
information about the brightness of incoming light. The findings reveal a new role for melanopsin
during image-forming vision that couldmake a significant contribution to support vision in people with
advanced retinal degeneration.
Clearly, biophotonics has broad application acrossmultiple areas of investigation. But what does
the dawn of the biophotonics agemean to biomedical research?
“Biophotonics is one of those transforming technologies that will impact nearly all the science
being done at the Salk Institute,” says Inder Verma, who was one of the driving forces behind the
establishment of theWaitt Center. “By opening new vistas at the level of individual cells or molecules,
it will revolutionize our understanding of the brain, the aging process and the development of cancer
and lead to new diagnostic tools and treatments for hitherto intractable diseases.”
: Illuminating visual processing
Rare, spider-likecells embedded in the retinameasure thebrightness of incoming light.
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