Chemical Physics in Living Cells-using Light to Visualize and Control Intracellular Signal Transduction

Vishnu Vardhan Krishnamurthy, Kai Zhang

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


Cells are crowded microenvironments filled with macromolecules undergoing constant physical and chemical interactions. The physicochemical makeup of the cells affects various cellular responses, determines cell-cell interactions and influences cell decisions. Chemical and physical properties differ between cells and within cells. Moreover, these properties are subject to dynamic changes in response to environmental signals, which often demand adjustments in the chemical or physical states of intracellular molecules. Indeed, cellular responses such as gene expression rely on the faithful relay of information from the outside to the inside of the cell, a process termed signal transduction. The signal often traverses a complex path across subcellular spaces with variable physical chemistry, sometimes even influencing it. Understanding the molecular states of such signaling molecules and their intracellular environments is vital to our understanding of the cell. Exploring such intricate spaces is possible today largely because of experimental and theoretical tools. Here, we focus on one tool that is commonly used in chemical physics studies - light. We summarize recent work which uses light to both visualize the cellular environment and also control intracellular processes along the axis of signal transduction. We highlight recent accomplishments in optical microscopy and optogenetics, an emerging experimental strategy which utilizes light to control the molecular processes in live cells. We believe that optogenetics lends unprecedented spatiotemporal precision to the manipulation of physicochemical properties in biological contexts. We hope to use this work to demonstrate new opportunities for chemical physicists who are interested in pursuing biological and biomedical questions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)375-392
Number of pages18
JournalChinese Journal of Chemical Physics
Issue number4
StatePublished - Aug 1 2018


  • Cargo trafficking
  • Cytoskeletal track
  • Gene transcription and translation
  • Optical microscopy
  • Optogenetics
  • Protein-protein interactions
  • Receptor
  • Signal transduction
  • Super-resolution imaging

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Physical and Theoretical Chemistry


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