Caged compounds are widely used by neurophysiologists to study many aspects of cellular signaling in glia and neurons. Biologically inert before irradiation, they can be loaded into cells via patch pipette or topically applied in situ to a defined concentration; photolysis releases the caged compound in a very rapid and spatially defined way. As caged compounds are exogenous optical probes, they include not only natural products such neurotransmitters, calcium and IP3 but non-natural products such as fluorophores, drugs and antibodies. In this Technical Spotlight we provide a short introduction to the uncaging technique by discussing the nitroaromatic caging chromophores most widely used in such experiments [e.g. α-carboxy-ortho-nitrobenyl (CNB), dimethoxynitrobenzyl (DMNB), 4-methoxy-7-nitroindolinyl (MNI) and 4-carboxymethoxy-7-nitroindolinyl (CDNI)]. We show that recently developed caging chromophores [rutheniumbipyridial (RuBi) and 7-diethylaminocoumarin (DEAC)450] that are photolyzed with blue light (∼ 430–480 nm range) can be combined with traditional nitroaromatic caged compounds to enable two-color optical probing of neuronal function. For example, one-photon uncaging of either RuBi-GABA or DEAC450-GABA with a 473-nm laser is facile, and can block nonlinear currents (dendritic spikes or action potentials) evoked by two-photon uncaging of CDNI-Glu at 720 nm. We also show that two-photon uncaging of DEAC450-Glu and CDNI-GABA at 900 and 720 nm, respectively, can be used to fire and block action potentials. Our experiments illustrate that recently developed chromophores have taken uncaging out of the ‘monochrome era’, in which it has existed since 1978, so as to enable multichromic interrogation of neuronal function with single-synapse precision.
Irradiation of a mixture of nitroaromatic- and DEAC450-caged compounds with short and long wavelengths produces chromatically-selective uncaging of either caged compound, no matter which wavelength of light is used first. Thus multiple wavelengths can be applied in an arbitrary order such that photolysis at single synapses of two caged compounds is possible.