The brain contains hundreds of types of neurons, which differ in size, shape and behavior. But neuroscientists often wish to study individual neuronal types in isolation. They are able to do this with the aid of a toolkit made up of two parts: viral vectors and genetically modified mice.
Viral vectors are viruses that have been modified so that they are no longer harmful and can instead be used to introduce genetic material into cells on demand. To create a viral vector, the virus’ own genetic material is replaced with a ‘cargo’ gene, such as the gene for a fluorescent protein. The virus is then introduced into a new host such as a mouse. Importantly, the virus only produces the protein encoded by its ‘cargo’ gene if it is inside a cell that also contains one of two specific enzymes. These enzymes are called Cre and Flp.
This is where the second part of the toolkit comes in. Mice can be genetically engineered to produce either Cre or Flp exclusively in specific cell types. By introducing a viral vector into mice that produce either Cre or Flp only in one particular type of neuron, researchers can limit the activity of the cargo gene to that neuronal type.
But sometimes even this approach is not selective enough. Researchers may wish to limit the activity of the cargo gene to a subpopulation of cells that produce Cre or Flp. Or they may wish to target only Cre- or Flp-producing cells in a small area of the brain, while leaving cells in neighboring areas unaffected.
Sabatini et al. have now overcome this limitation by developing and testing a new set of viral vectors that are active only in neurons that produce both Cre and Flp. The vectors are called tTARGIT AAVs and allow researchers to target cells more precisely than was possible with the previous version of the toolkit.
Sabatini et al. show tTARGIT AAVs in action by using them to identify a group of neurons that control how much energy mice use and how much food they eat. As well as applying the vectors to their own research on obesity, Sabatini et al. have also made them freely available for other researchers to use in their own projects.