Gero Miesenböck, MD
Before coming to Oxford in 2007, Gero Miesenböck held faculty appointments at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and Yale University. Miesenböck studied medicine at the University of Innsbruck in his native Austria and was a postdoctoral fellow with James Rothman.
At the beginning of his independent career, Miesenböck devised and demonstrated the approach now known as optogenetics. He was the first scientist to modify neurons genetically so that their electrical activity could be controlled with light, and he was the first to use this form of optical remote control to insert artificial messages into the brain. These messages can then be fractionated according to their power to evoke perception, action, emotion, or thought, just like a biochemist would purify an enzyme according to its power to reconstitute a reaction. Miesenböck has received many awards for the invention of optogenetics, including the Brain Prize, the Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize, the Shaw Prize, and the Japan Prize. He is a member of the Austrian and German Academies of Science and a Fellow of the Royal Society.
Miesenböck’s current interest centers on the biological function and neuronal control of sleep. He discovered that sleep-inducing neurons in the fly brain estimate sleep need from the fate of electrons entering the transport chains of their own mitochondria. A redox-sensitive subunit of a voltage-gated potassium channel records the amount of non-enzymatic single-electron reductions of molecular oxygen and converts this signal to the heightened neuronal excitability that drives sleep. This mechanism reveals a deep and direct connection between energy metabolism and sleep, two processes that had previously been implicated only separately and independently in lifespan, aging, and degenerative disease.