Optogenetic activation of Gq signalling modulates pacemaker activity of cardiomyocytes

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Investigation of Gq signalling with pharmacological agonists of Gq-coupled receptors lacks spatio-temporal precision. The aim of this study was to establish melanopsin, a light-sensitive Gq-coupled receptor, as a new tool for the investigation of spatial and temporal effects of Gq stimulation on pacemaking in cardiomyocytes at an early developmental stage.

Methods and results

A vector for ubiquitous expression of melanopsin was tested in HEK293FT cells, which showed light-induced production of inositol-1,4,5-trisphosphate and elevation of intracellular Ca2+ concentration. Mouse embryonic stem cells were stably transfected with this plasmid and differentiated into spontaneously beating embryoid bodies (EBs). Cardiomyocytes within EBs showed melanopsin expression and illumination (60 s, 308.5 nW/mm2, 470 nm) of EBs increased beating rate within 10.2 ± 1.7 s to 317.1 ± 16.3% of baseline frequency. Illumination as short as 5 s was sufficient for generating the maximal frequency response. After termination of illumination, baseline frequency was reached with a decay constant of 27.1 ± 2.5 s. The light-induced acceleration of beating frequency showed a sigmoid dependence on light intensity with a half maximal effective light intensity of 41.7 nW/mm2. Interestingly, EBs showed a high rate of irregular contractions after termination of high-intensity illumination. Local Gq activation by illumination of a small region in a functional syncytium of cardiomyocytes led to pacemaker activity within the illuminated area.


Light-induced Gq activation in melanopsin-expressing cardiomyocytes increases beating rate and generates local pacemaker activity. We propose that melanopsin is a powerful optogenetic tool for the investigation of spatial and temporal aspects of Gq signalling in cardiovascular research.

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