Voltage-gated sodium (Na+) channels are responsible for the fast upstroke of the action potential of excitable cells. The different α subunits of Na+ channels respond to brief membrane depolarizations above a threshold level by undergoing conformational changes that result in the opening of the pore and a subsequent inward flux of Na+. Physiologically, these initial membrane depolarizations are caused by other ion channels that are activated by a variety of stimuli such as mechanical stretch, temperature changes, and various ligands. In the present study, we developed an optogenetic approach to activate Na+ channels and elicit action potentials in Xenopus laevis oocytes. All recordings were performed by the two-microelectrode technique. We first coupled channelrhodopsin-2 (ChR2), a light-sensitive ion channel of the green alga Chlamydomonas reinhardtii, to the auxiliary β1 subunit of voltage-gated Na+ channels. The resulting fusion construct, β1-ChR2, retained the ability to modulate Na+ channel kinetics and generate photosensitive inward currents. Stimulation of Xenopus oocytes coexpressing the skeletal muscle Na+ channel Nav1.4 and β1-ChR2 with 25-ms lasting blue-light pulses resulted in rapid alterations of the membrane potential strongly resembling typical action potentials of excitable cells. Blocking Nav1.4 with tetrodotoxin prevented the fast upstroke and the reversal of the membrane potential. Coexpression of the voltage-gated K+ channel Kv2.1 facilitated action potential repolarization considerably. Light-induced action potentials were also obtained by coexpressing β1-ChR2 with either the neuronal Na+ channel Nav1.2 or the cardiac-specific isoform Nav1.5. Potential applications of this novel optogenetic tool are discussed.

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