Karl Deisseroth led the development and application of optogenetics: the integration of genetics and optics to achieve gain- or loss-of-function of well-defined events (such as action potential patterns) in defined cell types within intact biological systems. This optogenetic control is achieved with high-fidelity using microbial opsin genes, taken from evolutionarily distant organisms such as algae and archaebacteria, that encode single component light-activated regulators of transmembrane ion conductance. Since Deisseroth’s transduction of microbial opsins into neurons in 2004, publications from his team beginning in 2005 have demonstrated a number of remarkable and surprising properties for this optical control of neural activity: single-componency (functional control of vertebrate neurons with just an opsin gene, in the absence of added cofactors), safety and tolerability, millisecond-scale control of spiking, and reliability in delivering sustained and defined spike trains. To help enable reliable in vivo application, Deisseroth and his colleagues have generated 1) faster and more potent opsins for fidelity at high spike rates and low light levels; 2) bistable (step-function) opsin mutants that allow cells to be switched into and out of stable excitable states with single flashes of light; 3) redshifted opsins for combinatorial control with blue light-activated opsins; 4) generalizable methods for targeting opsins; and 5) the fiberoptic/laser diode device to allow optogenetic control of any brain region or tissue in freely-moving mammals;. Deisseroth has also led both basic science and disease-focused work employing optogenetics, with investigations into aspects of Parkinsonism, anxiety, social dysfunction, and other neuropsychiatric disease symptoms.
A native of Boston, Deisseroth received his bachelor's degree from Harvard in 1992, his PhD from Stanford in 1998, and his MD from Stanford in 2000. He completed postdoctoral training, medical internship, and adult psychiatry residency at Stanford, and he was board-certified by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology. He is a faculty member in the Bioengineering and Psychiatry Departments at Stanford, and continues as a practicing inpatient and outpatient psychiatrist at Stanford, employing medications and interventional brain stimulation techniques (VNS, TMS and others) to treat patients with psychiatric disease. In addition he serves as Director of Undergraduate Education in Bioengineering at Stanford, teaches yearly courses in both the graduate and undergraduate curricula, and provides education and training in optogenetics as well as freely distributing and supporting tools and expertise to thousands of scientists worldwide. Among other awards, for developing and applying optogenetics, Deisseroth has received the NIH Director’s Pioneer Award and the McKnight Foundation Techological Innovations Award, and was the sole recipient of the 2010 Koetser Prize, the 2010 Nakasone Prize, and the 2011 Alden Spencer Prize. In 2010 he was elected to the Institute of Medicine.