Edward Boyden at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Karl Deisseroth at Stanford University and Howard Hughes Medical Institute have both been awarded a Breakthrough Prize in life sciences for work on optogenetics. Each received $3 million, as did three other recipients of the life sciences prize.
The winners were honoured at a star-studded ceremony in Silicon Valley hosted by Seth MacFarlane, with a live performance by Pharrell Williams, and Russell Crowe and Hilary Swank among those presenting the awards.
The Breakthrough Prize was founded by Sergey Brin and Anne Wojcicki, Jack Ma and Cathy Zhang, Yuri and Julia Milner, and Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan. The prize money totalled $21.9 million for the awards in life sciences, fundamental physics and mathematics.
Optogenetics relies on light-sensitive proteins, originally isolated from bacteria and algae. About 10 years ago, Boyden and Deisseroth began engineering neurons to express these proteins, meaning the neurons could be stimulated or silenced selectively with pulses of light.
More recently, Boyden has developed additional proteins that are even more sensitive to light and can respond to different colours. Scientists are now using optogenetics to reveal the brain circuitry underlying normal neural function as well as neurological disorders such as autism, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and depression.