Biochemists have seen the light in developing a new way to control biology at the cellular level.

Researchers at the University of Alberta have developed a tool called a photocleavable protein that breaks into two pieces when exposed to light, allowing scientists to study and manipulate activity inside cells in new and different ways.

The scientists first used the photocleavable protein to link cellular proteins to inhibitors in a process known as caging, preventing the cellular proteins from performing their usual function.

"By shining light into the cell, we can cause the photocleavable protein to break, removing the inhibitor and uncaging the protein within the cell," lead author Robert Campbell, professor in the Department of Chemistry, said in a statement.

Once the protein is uncaged, it can begin to perform its normal function inside the cell.

The tool is relatively easy to use and widely applicable for other research that involves controlling processes inside a cell.

According to Campbell, the power of light-sensitive proteins is that they can be used to study the inner workings of any living cell. For example, ontogenetic tools are widely used to activate brain activity in mice.

"We could use the photocleavable protein to study single bacteria, yeast, human cells in the lab or even whole animals such as zebrafish or mice," Campbell said. "To put these proteins inside an animal, we simply splice the gene for the protein into DNA and insert it into the cells using established techniques."

The research team is making the gene for the photocleavable on Addgene—a global archive and depository of molecular biology resources.

"We want to provide new ways to learn about cell biology," Campbell said. "I see countless potential applications for research and future investigation—from looking at which cells become which tissues in development biology, to investigating the possibilities of gene-editing technology."