Letter | Published:

A genetically encoded photoactivatable Rac controls the motility of living cells

Nature volume 461, pages 104108 (03 September 2009) | Download Citation



The precise spatio-temporal dynamics of protein activity are often critical in determining cell behaviour, yet for most proteins they remain poorly understood; it remains difficult to manipulate protein activity at precise times and places within living cells. Protein activity has been controlled by light, through protein derivatization with photocleavable moieties1 or using photoreactive small-molecule ligands2. However, this requires use of toxic ultraviolet wavelengths, activation is irreversible, and/or cell loading is accomplished via disruption of the cell membrane (for example, through microinjection). Here we have developed a new approach to produce genetically encoded photoactivatable derivatives of Rac1, a key GTPase regulating actin cytoskeletal dynamics in metazoan cells3,4. Rac1 mutants were fused to the photoreactive LOV (light oxygen voltage) domain from phototropin5,6, sterically blocking Rac1 interactions until irradiation unwound a helix linking LOV to Rac1. Photoactivatable Rac1 (PA-Rac1) could be reversibly and repeatedly activated using 458- or 473-nm light to generate precisely localized cell protrusions and ruffling. Localized Rac activation or inactivation was sufficient to produce cell motility and control the direction of cell movement. Myosin was involved in Rac control of directionality but not in Rac-induced protrusion, whereas PAK was required for Rac-induced protrusion. PA-Rac1 was used to elucidate Rac regulation of RhoA in cell motility. Rac and Rho coordinate cytoskeletal behaviours with seconds and submicrometre precision7,8. Their mutual regulation remains controversial9, with data indicating that Rac inhibits and/or activates Rho10,11. Rac was shown to inhibit RhoA in mouse embryonic fibroblasts, with inhibition modulated at protrusions and ruffles. A PA-Rac crystal structure and modelling revealed LOV–Rac interactions that will facilitate extension of this photoactivation approach to other proteins.

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Primary accessions

Data deposits

The structural coordinates of PA-Rac1 and its mutants have been submitted to the Protein Data Bank under accessions 2wkp (wild type), 2wkq (C450A) and 2wkr (C450M).


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We are grateful for help and constructs from W. Briggs, K. Moffat, A. Tripathy, G. Bokoch and K. Jacobson. Diffraction data were collected at the Swiss Light Source, beamline X10SA, Paul Scherrer Institute, Villigen, Switzerland. We thank the Dortmund-Heidelberg team for data collection, and A. Pauluhn and M. Fuchs for their support in setting up the beamline. This research was supported by the American Heart Association (Y.I.W.) and the National Institutes of Health (K.M.H. grants GM057464 and GM64346).

Author Contributions Y.I.W. initiated the project, demonstrated the validity of caging Rac with LOV, and performed the studies of Rac biological function. He was assisted by A.J. in cloning and protein expression. D.F. and I.S. determined and analysed the crystal structures. O.I.L. performed molecular modelling and isothermal calorimetry studies under the direction of B.K. K.M.H. coordinated the study and wrote the final version of the manuscript, based on contributions from all authors.

Author information


  1. Department of Pharmacology,

    • Yi I. Wu
    • , Oana I. Lungu
    • , Angelika Jaehrig
    •  & Klaus M. Hahn
  2. Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics, and,

    • Oana I. Lungu
    •  & Brian Kuhlman
  3. Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, North Carolina 27599, USA

    • Yi I. Wu
    • , Oana I. Lungu
    • , Angelika Jaehrig
    • , Brian Kuhlman
    •  & Klaus M. Hahn
  4. Department of Biomolecular Mechanisms, Max Planck Institute for Medical Research, Jahn-Strasse 29, 69120 Heidelberg, Germany

    • Daniel Frey
    •  & Ilme Schlichting


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Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Yi I. Wu or Klaus M. Hahn.

Supplementary information

PDF files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Information

    This file contains Supplementary Notes, Supplementary Figures S1-S14 with Legends, Supplementary Tables S1-S5, Legends for Supplementary Movies S1-S16 and Supplementary References.


  1. 1.

    Supplementary Movie S1

    This movie file shows ruffles and protrusions induced in a HeLa cell expressing PA-Rac1 - see file s1 for full Legend.

  2. 2.

    Supplementary Movie S2

    This movie file shows localized illumination of PA-Rac1 - see file s1 for full Legend.

  3. 3.

    Supplementary Movie S3

    This movie file shows actin reorganization induced by sequential activation of PA-Rac1 at multiple locations - see file s1 for full Legend.

  4. 4.

    Supplementary Movie S4

    This movie file shows translocation of PAK to protrusions upon PA-Rac1 activation - see file s1 for full Legend.

  5. 5.

    Supplementary Movie S5

    This movie file shows reversible induction of ruffling at different locations - see file s1 for full Legend.

  6. 6.

    Supplementary Movie S6

    This movie file shows complex control of cell morphology guided by a moving laser beam - see file s1 for full Legend.

  7. 7.

    Supplementary Movie S7

    This movie file shows diffusion of PA-Rac1 observed using FRAP (fluorescence recovery after photobleaching) - see file s1 for full Legend.

  8. 8.

    Supplementary Movie S8

    This movie file shows diffusion of PA-Rac1 observed using PA-GFP - see file s1 for full Legend.

  9. 9.

    Supplementary Movie S9

    This movie file shows polarization induced by localized activation of PA-Rac1 – see file s1 for full Legend.

  10. 10.

    Supplementary Movie S10

    This movie file shows that localized irradiation of PA-Rac1-T17N generates reversed polarity – see file s1 for full Legend.

  11. 11.

    Supplementary Movie S11

    This movie file shows that irradiation of PA-Rac1-T17N reverses polarization – see file s1 for full Legend.

  12. 12.

    Supplementary Movie S12

    This movie file shows directional migration induced by repeated irradiation at the cell edge – see file s1 for full Legend.

  13. 13.

    Supplementary Movie S13

    This movie file shows directional migration induced by PA-Rac1 in HEK293 cells – see file s1 for full Legend.

  14. 14.

    Supplementary Movie S14

    This movie file shows downregulation of RhoA activity propagates from the site of PA-Rac1 activation - see file s1 for full Legend.

  15. 15.

    Supplementary Movie S15

    This movie file shows ruffle translocation upon activation of PA-Rac1 - see file s1 for full Legend.

  16. 16.

    Supplementary Movie S16

    This movie file shows contrasting morphological changes produced by activation of PACdc42 versus PA-Rac1– see file s1 for full Legend.

Zip files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Data 1

    This zipped file contains the data for PA-RAC1(C450A).

  2. 2.

    Supplementary Data 2

    This zipped file contains the data for PA-RAC1(C450M).

  3. 3.

    Supplementary Data 3

    This zipped file contains the data for PA-RAC1(WT).

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