Algae are oxygen-producing organisms that usually grow in water. Some are green; some are slimy. A new study reveals that God designed algae to be beneficial in a surprising way. This spring, researchers restored partial vision to a blind person—using algae.
The human brain contains billions of nerve cells, or neurons. These cells communicate using electrical impulses. Neurons allow the brain to function and affect behavior, emotion, and sensation.
A few years ago, some scientists wanted a way to control brain activity. Their goal was studying—and possibly repairing—brain disorders and other problems. They experimented with implanting neurons with a gene to build protein molecules that respond to light. The scientists who wrote the new study looked at algae. Could algae-gene implants help them fire neurons on and off using pulses of light?
“We had to turn to the natural world,” Edward Boyden of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology tells Encyclopedia Britannica. “It turns out throughout all the kingdoms of life, in plants and funguses and bacteria and so on, you can find photosynthetic or photosensory molecules.” Those molecules turn light into electricity, similar to how photoreceptors in our eyes turn light into electrical signals to our brains.
The forms and functions of algae and other organisms don’t surprise the Creator. Science is just beginning to explore the potential that exists in nature. (See Biomimicry Copies Perfect Design.) Indeed, “things which eye has not seen . . . all that God has prepared for those who love Him.” (1 Corinthian 2:9 NASB)
Scientists called their new procedure “optogenetic therapy.” They studied light-detecting proteins from one algae species. They injected the gene that codes those proteins into a 58-year-old male patient’s eye. The man suffers from a genetic disease. His disease kills cells in the eye. Researchers hoped the optogenetic therapy could “rewire” his eye’s neurons to receive light and send electrical signals to his brain.
The therapy allowed the man a renewed ability to notice and count objects. To see out of the treated eye, he must wear a certain kind of goggles. The goggles beam the only color the implanted cells can see: amber.
The man’s vision is still limited. He cannot discern other colors or details. But Science News reports that the man recognized some items while wearing the goggles. With the treated eye, he could see a door, furniture, and stripes in a crosswalk. He was able to point to a book and a bottle on a table.
Study co-authors José-Alain Sahel and Botond Roska say their therapy is not a cure for blindness. “For now, all we can say is that there is one patient . . . with a functional difference,” Roska says.
“It’s obviously not the end of the road,” says Sahel, “but it’s a major milestone.” For patients with limited vision, it’s at least a distant light at the end of the tunnel.